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A growing and buoyant Chinese art market suggests “No one should underestimate the strength of the Chinese diaspora”

1996 saw high prices and new records with the Chinese determining the shape and make up of future sales

In spite of the huge question mark hanging over Hong Kong’s future role as the centre of the Chinese art market, Sotheby’s and Christie’s November sales showed a buoyant market, with totals way up on last year. Christie’s achieved their results since they began selling in the Crown colony ten years ago: HK$300 million (£23 million) against HK$186.5 million (£14.4 million) last year. Sotheby’s lagged behind with a total of HK$182.3 million (£14.1 million) which was, none the less, forty percent up on last year.

While it is tempting to attribute the renewed vitality of the Oriental market to the awakening of a sleeping giant in the form of mainland China, Colin Sheaf of Christie’s maintains that there is absolutely no evidence to support the theory that collectors from the mainland played any significant role in last year’s auctions. “All the growth in the South East Asian market is due to the overseas Chinese. They are spending heavily on Chinese art and jewellery, both jadeite and Western”, he said.

“No one should underestimate the strength of the Chinese diaspora with its far reaching tentacles. The wealthy industrialists of Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are now turning back to their roots. The Chinese have always been fascinated with their past and they now have the wealth to repatriate their country’s heritage”. Julian Thompson of Sotheby’s confirmed that the mainland Chinese made up only a very small percentage of those buying at auction, but he is convinced they will be a very considerable factor in the future. Within mainland China, Chinese nationals (collectors and dealers) make up a large proportion of those buying at the new Chinese auctions (see The Art Newspaper, No. 59, May 1996, p. 31). The two main Chinese auction houses are putting together high quality auctions with many of the objects consigned from overseas. Art offers an opportunity to transfer worthless Chinese currency into an international commodity.

It is difficult for Western dealers and collectors to buy openly at auction in China due to the country’s export laws, but there appears to be no difficulty for the Chinese, in particular Hong Kong and Taiwanese dealers who know their way around the system, in getting objects out of the country and obviously those which have been imported for sale may be exported. If export regulations change when the Chinese gain control of Hong Kong, so that there is no difference between Hong Kong and mainland China, the main market for post-Song antiques may shift to China itself. Hong Kong will still flourish as a centre for contemporary Chinese painting and Western jewellery, both rapidly expanding markets in the Far East. Whatever the future holds, in a year that has seen high prices and new records set, it is the taste of the Chinese that is dominating the market and influencing the shape and make up of future sales

Ceramics

The Chinese will not buy grave goods as these are deemed inauspicious and private ownership of excavated goods in mainland China is a grey area. These objects do not appear in Chinese catalogues and are not sold in Hong Kong, but in London and New York. This factor, coupled with the huge numbers of recently excavated Tang figures and Han pots which have flooded the market, has caused a dramatic drop in prices in these areas. Neolithic pots can now be purchased for a tenth of their previous value while ordinary Tang figures have halved in value. Of course, outstanding objects with good provenances from this period will always hold their value.

The Chinese taste is for superb quality, highly decorated porcelain of the Ming and Quin periods, preferably mark and period showing they are from an Imperial factory. Such pieces have been long admired in the West but anything with an imperial provenance and specifically Chinese symbolism is especially precious to these new collectors.

In the sale of the collector T.T. Tsui’s Jingguantang collection in Hong Kong (Christie’s, 3 November) a blue and white bottle vase decorated with a dragon and the Qianlong seal mark made a world record for Qing dynasty blue and white porcelain at HK$6.4 million (£496,000). The dragon is, of course, the archetypal symbol of imperial power in Chinese art.

At Sotheby’s New York on 18 September, another Qianlong piece, a famille rose “Hundred Deer” vase fetched $376,500 (£221,470). Again, the deer is of enormous significance to the Chinese, being both an imperial symbol and representative of longevity. At Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale in November, a Kangxi famille verte vase which did not even have an imperial mark, made four times its estimate at HK$205,500 (£15,930).

Jade and jadeite

Jade carries overtones of mysticism and immortality for the Chinese, having been highly prized since ancient times for its extraordinary colour and hardness. Jadeite, as well as Western jewellery, is the most obvious way of flaunting one’s success, as it signifies wealth and status in the Chinese community.

At Christie’s Hong Kong on 5 November, a fabulous strand of flawless jadeite beads sold to Taiwanese buyer Mr Huang for HK$17.62 million (£1.36 million). This was the second highest price ever paid for jadeite jewellery and the sale, which totalled HK$83 million (£6.4 million), was the highest ever achieved at a jadeite auction.

The highest lot in Sotheby’s November Hong Kong sales was a jadeite bangle which fetched HK$9.59 million (£7.4 million). The top lot in the Jing- guantang collection was a jadeite burner twenty-four centimetres high, carved from a single piece and flawless throughout, bid up to HK$7.72 million (£600,000). At the height of the market in 1989, this had fetched HK$6.5 million (£500,000), a sure confirmation of the current vitality of the market. At Christie’s imperial sale—a new marketing gimmick for the South East Asian market, which included only imperial pieces—jade carried off the top prices: for instance, a tiny jadeite plume holder of Burmese jade, fetched HK$3.98 million (£308,000).

Sculpture

The taste of these new Chinese buyers, in particular those from Taiwan, is now evolving from the more obvious jades, porcelain and flashy bronzes to an appreciation of earlier Chinese sculpture, especially anything associated with the Buddhist religion. According to Julian Thompson there is a new group of collectors seriously interested in this subject and prices have been high all year. At Sotheby’s New York sale in March 1996 a Tang dynasty Bodhisattva more than doubled its estimate to fetch $178,500 (£105,000). Following this success, a large limestone head of Guanyin, early eighth century, from the Longman caves, made the front cover of Christie’s Hong Kong April sale, fetching a very healthy HK$2.44 million (£190,000).

Painting

While Hong Kong has traditionally been the marketplace for nineteenth- and twentieth-century Chinese painting and New York the principal market for classical Chinese paintings, with America’s academic museum collections, recent sales suggest that this too is changing. A collection of paintings formed in Shanghai preceding the Communist rise to power in 1947 was sold at Christie’s New York on 18 September 1996. Sixty percent of the top lots were purchased by Asian collectors, two of them by the Chinese government for the newly opened Shanghai Museum. They were two important early calligraphy album leaves by Shi Jie (1005-1045) and Fu Bi (1004-1083), which quadrupled their estimates at US$189,500 (£111,470) and US$123,500 (£72,647). Here at least is evidence that the Chinese have been participating in auctions outside the mainland.

Furniture

Christie’s New York sale of the collection of the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture (see the Art Newspaper, No.64, November 1996, p.34) was a landmark in the re-evaluation of Ming furniture. It was the first time such an important collection had been auctioned, and so it attracted enormous attention. While Western collectors bought the majority of the top lots, there was also strong interest from the Chinese. It totalled $11.24 million (£6.6 million), the highest for a Chinese sale this decade. The top lot, a large huanghuali and marble screen, was purchased by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for $1.1million, (£647,058), a record price for a piece of Ming furniture. The Taiwanese, Hong Kong and Singaporeans have now emerged as important new collectors in this field, as more works have come out of China (China Guardian auction house held a sale of Ming furniture in October 1995 where Chinese collectors paid high prices).

The Korean market: still limited and volatile

Stunned amazement greeted the sale of a Choson dynasty, Korean dragon jar at Christie’s New York on 31 October for US$8.42 million (£4.9 million) (see The Art Newspaper, No.65, December 1996, p.31), which set a new record for any Asian work of art. Korea is still a narrow market. There is a very limited number of top quality objects and only a few collectors chasing them, which makes the market highly volatile. In this instance, as Colin Sheaf explained, two industrial giants were bidding aginst each other for their corporate museums. It became an extension of their business competition and a matter of deep pride as to who ended up with this object. Christie’s have now opened an office in Seoul and are previewing Western sales in Korea in an attempt to broaden the market’s base.

Chinese export art

Although they have nothing to do with Chinese taste, two engaging porcelain animals fetched outstanding prices in the November London sales. The Chinese never touch export porcelain, considering it inferior to that produced for the home market, but it has always been extremely popular with the Portuguese, with their strong colonial trading links with China.

At Sotheby’s, a realistically modelled and painted Kangxi tiger 93 cm high almost tripled its low estimate to make a new record for export porcelain at £364,500. It was the only known example of this model and sold to a Portuguese buyer. At Christie’s a vividly decorated Kakiemon elephant from the early eighteenth century sold for £680,000, a new record for Japanese ceramics, which would at last indicate some strengthening of the depressed Japanese market.

Future-gazing

With China such a politically unstable entity it is very difficult to predict how the Oriental market will now develop. If free trade is allowed to flourish in mainland China, the nation will emerge as both a major source for goods, as well as a major purchasing power. Sotheby’s and Christie’s will not be granted licences to hold auctions on the mainland. And once China has control of the former colony, it may alter its export laws, in which case the supply of goods from China to Hong Kong would dry up. What is certain is that the market will continue to grow in the countries of the Pacific rim. Christie’s and Sotheby’s have now opened offices in Jakarta and Sotheby’s have an office in Thailand and are looking to open one in the Philippines.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as “No one should underestimate the strength of the Chinese diaspora”