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A new head of Asian art at Phillips: Interview with Colin Sheaf

“London remains a huge centre for collectors all over Europe”

Colin Sheaf has recently joined Phillips as International Head of Asian Art after working in the Chinese department at Christie’s for 26 years in London, New York and Hong Kong. While Sotheby’s and Christie’s now hold their major Asian sales in New York and Hong Kong, Phillips, by contrast, plan to expand their London operation. Mr Sheaf explained their reasoning to The Art Newspaper

Why have you decided to throw in your lot with Phillips?

Colin Sheaf What excites me is the way Phillips are transforming themselves into a major international auction house. LVMH is a company with major interests in the luxury goods business with top Asian clients. Lord Powell, the new chairman of Phillips was on the Asia board of LVMH and Sir Joseph Hotung has recently been appointed as a director. Asian art will play a big role in the development of the company.

How can you be a major player in the Asian market if you don’t plan to hold sales in either Hong Kong or New York?

Our relationship with Tajan in France will be crucial. France is a hugely important source of Asian art and in the present market if the object is good enough it does not matter where you sell it. If Sotheby’s and Christie’s choose to concentrate their business outside Europe, I think we will be well placed to establish ourselves in Europe. I don’t yet have a very long term view of how the business will develop; my immediate priority is to hold better sales here.

Will we see a difference with the sale in November?

My first sale in November will show that we have considerably upgraded the sale. Lesser material will go to Bayswater.

What do you think the future of the London Asian market is?

I was one of the founder members of Asian Art in London and am totally committed to maintaining London as a major, major centre. We seem to have got over the hurdle of VAT. This has not stopped the market dead as everyone predicted and London remains a huge entry point for collectors all over Europe. There is a very big role for London to play; whether it stays as one of the primary centres for Asian art, depends on the dealers and auctioneers who are supporting it. This year there are 52 participants in Asian Art Week.

It has been suggested that the Chinese may crack down on the export of antiquities and lobby for a US trade embargo in antiquities: do you think this will have a big effect on the market?

Most material that is sold in New York is sourced in America and little of the recently excavated material is sold at auction. People with really major works of art don’t want to risk sending them to auction. Auctioning early material is a lottery. If it has old established provenance it will do fantastically well but in my experience early, unprovenanced material will not sell well. There is only one early piece in our forthcoming sale out of 400 lots. I’m much more excited by Phillips’ private UK and European connections and I don't think the early material, made available through the Far Eastern trade, is an intelligent category to sell in any quantity. Sale results prove this.

Which areas of the market will be most successful in London?

The export market is very strong, – this is European and American taste. The material has often been in European collections for hundreds of years, and it also helps that this is one of my particular areas of expertise and I have written one of the standard works on the subject. There is also far more enthusiasm for Meiji period Japanese art in London and Paris than in New York. As we’re not selling in Hong Kong we’re unlikely to attract much Imperial porcelain. This is a niche market that has been driven by a handful of billionaire Far Eastern collectors. Hong Kong is a very specialist market and if anything happened to the Chinese or Taiwanese economy it would go completely off the boil.

What about the shipwreck sales which you so successfully pioneered at Christie’s. Is there still a market for this material?

I am very happy to consider shipwreck sales, but the market is very finite. In both the recent shipwreck sales there was a very interesting core section of objects, but far too much middle range material (See The Art Newspaper No. 107, October 2000, pp. 66-67). It represented a huge challenge to the principle of internet bulk auctioning. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t handle shipwrecks, but on my own terms.

What areas represent good value at the moment?

Export art is remarkably cheap vis-à-vis the Chinese equivalent. It is an underpriced and very stable market at the moment, but it is also very dependent on the American dollar.

What about the Japanese market?

This is still depressed. It is probably a good time to buy, but Western and Japanese taste is very different and the best things don’t come on the market when prices are lower.

How do you see the market developing?

The market is a bit peakier than it was two years ago. Money is tighter, and the divide between the very best and the middle range is ever widening, but I think these are quite healthy signs.

What has happened to the old sort of collector who bought in the middle range?

The middle range has got too expensive. You could buy a second rate Chinese snuff bottle for £150; now it’s £1200 and that’s too much. There has also been a change in the way people collect. How many people do we all know who collect middle range anything? Sales are often only 50% sold. People now spend all their money on property and school fees. The auction houses are starting to give more cautious estimates in the middle range. The market is also stagnant because the trade are unwilling to fill up their stock with middle range things knowing the real action is at the top of the market.

What sort of a sold percentage would you be happy with in your first sale?

I would be delighted with a sold rate of 80%. I think there is a reasonable chance of obtaining that as the bulk of the material is private and is reasonably estimated. The middle market is weak and if interest rates go up it will get even weaker. The shortage of stock is what is keeping the market afloat, not the ultimate marketability of the object. Prices do not reflect the ultimate demand of private buyers but more the shortage of stock.

Are there areas of the market that present difficulties at the moment?

I did notice last time I was in Hong Kong that early pottery was much harder to sell and many pottery shops were now selling jade carving. Brand new jade is being sold in earlier styles and so much jade is now being faked that an early provenance is worth everything. It has made the market much more cautious. Chinese paintings have exactly the same problem. There are no proven scientific tests and it is down to one person’s opinion against another’s. This is where I think Phillips’ connections with old established collections will be very influential in developing our market and I am looking forward to it enormously.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Betting on London'