The sale that every collector of Chinese porcelain had been eagerly waiting for lived up to its expectations and was the brightest spot in an otherwise rocky Asia Week.
The historically important collection was formed by well-known New York collectors and philanthropists Johnny and Pauline Falk, who began buying in China in 1937 and continued long afterwards, even when that country was closed to foreigners. They acquired most of their pieces in the 1940s and 1950s. While the Falk holdings included Japanese and Korean works of art and Chinese bronzes, jades and paintings, its strengths were in Song ceramics and Ming blue-and-white porcelain, which was their first collecting passion.
The Song holdings included rare examples from every kiln of the period, with the exception of Ruyao, making it a superb study collection. Many of the pieces had condition problems and the estimates were carefully pegged to take that into account. Describing the Falk’s method of collection, New York dealers James J. Lally, who was a friend of the Falks and the official advisor to the executors of their estate, said that they were “academically oriented, not stamp collectors.” He noted that all of the pieces have been carefully vetted by three generations of scholars. “The provenance,” he adds, “is not just a matter of sentiment, but also a matter of confidence that what you are getting is what it says it is.” The veiled reference is to the present problem of fakes that bedevils the market.
The sale catalogue was a triumph of beauty and scholarship, including not only tributes to the collectors by prominent people in the field of Asian arts, photographs of the couple, and essays on the collection, but, also, an acquisition time line, and, perhaps most interesting and unusual, photographs of the 17 pieces from the collection that were previously dispersed in museum bequests (nine), family bequests (five), and those that were sold (three). The saleroom was packed with private American collectors, many of whom had been friends of the couple and just wanted something from the collection. As competition was keen and prices soared, many were disappointed. “I was only able to get two small things that were on my D-list,” complained one man after the sale. A rare, small, 12th-century Guanyao mallow-form bowl with a crackle glaze fetched $82,250 (est. $7,000-10,000); an 8th-century Tang dynasty amber-glazed marble jar and cover fetched $58,750 (est. $15,000-20,000); and a rare black and brown Northern Song/Jin dynasty “partridge-feather”-glazed bowl and cover sold to James J. Lally, who was bidding for a client, for $105,000 (est. $20,000-30,000). Lally also acquired, for an American museum, a rare Longquan celadon reliquary modelled as a building, from the Southern Song dynasty, 12th/13th-century for $171,000 (est. $30,000-40,000).
Many of the souvenir hunters, however, left at the end of the Song lots, leaving the more expensive Ming pieces to the professionals. While the Falks were more interested in scholarship than condition when it came to early wares, they paid considerable attention to condition when buying blue and white.
The unquestioned highlight of the collection was the cover lot, a rare Ming blue and white bowl with a Xuande mark and of the period (1426-35) that was especially prized for its rarity, perfect condition, and the superb quality of the painting of an immortal seated on the back of a phoenix over a landscape with a pavilion.
London dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi attracted much applause when he bought it for $1,161,000 (est. $300,000-500,000), the highest price of the day. Asked if he bought it for a client (in common with most of the dealers), he replied, “I don’t have one yet. I went way over the bid.” Another outstanding blue and white piece was a brushwasher with a Jiajing mark and of the period with a central medallion of fish swimming among reeds. Because the design is usually found in dishes but is very rare for a brushwasher, the piece soared to $204,000 (est. $40,000-60,000). Similarly, an extremely rare early 15th-century Ming blue and white lobed jardinière had three bidders at the $200,000 level and sold to a US collector for $270,000 (est. $120,000-150,000).
Among the few unsold lots were two early Ming blue and white dishes from the Yongle period (1403-1425). Each was estimated at $150,000 to $200,000 and sank without trace at $95,000. There was nothing wrong with the dishes, but they were not as rare as many of the others, and several people felt that the estimates were too high.
The total for the two sessions was $6.3 million, nicely above pre-sale expectations of $2.8-4.4 million. The bidders, according to Theow Tow, International director of the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art department at Christie’s New York, were “established collectors, members of the trade and institutions as well as new buyers from all over the world.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The brightest spot in the week'