Chenghua period 'Palace' bowl
Chenghua period 'Palace' bowl
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There is nothing quite like a Chinese art auction– except, perhaps, a casino. This week, Sotheby’s marked its 40th anniversary in Hong Kong by presenting its highest-value sales series to date, offering some 3,571 lots and expecting at least US$370m (it found US$538m).

Rising to the occasion, its specialists had procured some outstanding consignments across the board, from rarefied Song and Tang dynasty lacquer and sublime imperial porcelains to important contemporary Chinese art, great Bordeaux and whopper diamonds. The prices paid may well have broken a bank or two.

Records fell like ninepins – for sale totals (20th century Chinese Art, Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art, and jewellery), for categories, and for individual artists. Zeng Fanzhi’s politically charged “The Last Supper” more than doubled expectations to sell for HK$180m (US$23m), a new auction record for the work of a living Chinese artist and for any contemporary Asian art.

An outstanding Ming imperial gilt-bronze figure of a seated Shakyamuni Buddha of the Yongle period soared five times over its pre-sale estimate to sell for HK$236m (US$30m), a record for any Chinese sculpture. A celadon “Longevity” vase became the most expensive piece of Qing monochrome porcelain sold at auction, changing hands for 10 times the estimate, $HK88.6m (US$11.4m).

Buddha of the Yongle period
Buddha of the Yongle period

It is hard for the uninitiated to imagine these vast Hong Kong or mainland Chinese sales, with viewing sessions that attract 5,000 visitors and 1,000 bidders, and with punters shouting out bids far in excess of the auctioneer’s demands and no logic to its prices. This is the wildest and most opaque of art markets but it is vast – and the art trade is banking on it getting even bigger. As Sotheby’s and Christie’s continue to expand this market by developing new sale categories, staging selling exhibitions and pioneering auctions on the mainland, it seemed a good idea to try to understand what is really going on here – at auction and in the wider art trade.

Speaking to Nicolas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, before the sale, he described an auction market becalmed and more transparent. After the headline-hitting crazy prices of 2010-11, where the likes of the Qing dynasty “Ruislip vase” sold for £43m, he told of a return to pre-2010 prices and, in the aftermath of the tightening of credit in China, to a collector’s market after the collapse of several art funds. He saw it as a healthy sign that buyers at the top end were spread between Hong Kong, Taiwan, greater China and the west. Non-payment was no longer a serious problem, he claimed.

Most of the country’s new money will continue to come to traditional collecting categories, he believes.

“A lot of wealth is in the hands of people who are not necessarily educated but who are interested in their own roots and buying back their cultural history,” he says, pointing out that Chinese TV now airs day-long cultural programmes. Buyers relish the opportunity to buy imperial pieces and “rub shoulders with the emperors”. Revealingly, the buyer of the Yongle gilt-bronze Buddha, consigned from Italy, was one Mr Zheng Huaxing of Zhongshan Wujuezhai, Guangdong, who received a standing ovation.

“I would have paid any price for this sculpture,” he said after the sale: “I am glad that it can finally be returned to its rightful place in China.”

Until fairly recently there was little interest in China in Buddhist sculpture which, as religious art, was not considered worthy of collecting.

One trend confirmed by these sales is the growing importance of the Japanese as sellers. One of the season’s highlights was the consignment of early Chinese lacquer and sculpture from the legendary dealer Sakamoto Goro. Its star piece, a profoundly beautiful and exceedingly rare dry lacquer head of Buddha from the Tang dynasty, doubled expectations to sell for HK$40m (US$5m). There were also six Qing dynasty imperial porcelains consigned from a Kyoto collection. These showy ceramics are not typical of Japanese taste but they are just the ticket for today’s mainland buyers. Yet it is interesting to see that the gaudy enamelled wares are fetching less these days, while the monochrome porcelains – like the celadon “Longevity” vase at this sale – are soaring in value.

Who would have anticipated 40 years ago that such a frankly ill-judged, over-complex piece could fetch almost as much as an exquisite imperial Chenghua-period (1465-87) blue and white “Palace” bowl that once belonged to the great British collector Lord Cunliffe? Such bowls represent the peak of material refinement and artistry – this one is perfectly potted and painted, and as light as a feather, its surface astonishingly silken. That sold, not much over estimate, to Hong Kong’s leading porcelain dealer William Chak for HK$141m (US$18m), the second highest auction price for Ming porcelain.

Celadon 'Longevity' vase
Celadon 'Longevity' vase

Given these results, can Sotheby’s still claim that the market is no longer overheated or opaque? As its Asia chairman Patti Wong put it after the sales: “We’ve taken the pulse of the Asian art market – it is racing, and we are racing with it.”

Certainly it was telling hearing the views of the international dealers in town for the auctions or exhibiting at the ever-improving four-day fair Fine Art Asia. There were tales galore of broken promises, delayed payments, suitcases of cash (always less than the agreed amount), agents pre-selling before they had even paid for something, and investors not bothering even to collect their purchases. And let’s not forget that this market is riddled with fakes (as, sadly, are some Chinese museum collections).

It would appear that the “arts of negotiating the Chinese way” are still alive and well. If anyone wants a government permit or contract, rest assured that gifts change hands through second or third parties – cash is far too risky. The present is, of course, accompanied with a catalogue that indicates its value.

Ego is another driving force in this market. A certain type of bidder loves to show off his wealth and, equally, cannot bear to lose face – or lose to a foreigner. And he need not pay his bill. The Chinese love of gambling is another – witness, for instance, the frenzied speculation of expatriates buzzing around the Chinese art sales at the Hotel Drouot in Paris.

How much of this buying is based on cupidity? Revealingly, the Chinese equivalent of the Antiques Roadshow draws an estimated 100m viewers. One distinguished dealer wondered whether even the really serious Chinese buyers were not actually investors. Another opined: “It is a bit of a fantasy in the west that the future and the present of collecting lies on the Chinese mainland.” Tellingly, Tefaf (the venerable Maastricht fair) has postponed the Beijing venture it announced last year.

Even so, each sale season brings more new buyers from the mainland. Before the second world war, the greatest collectors of Chinese art were, like Lord Cunliffe, British; from the 1960s to the early 80s, they were the Japanese.

Now everything is returning, including the classical Chinese furniture so admired by American collectors – and there is hardly anyone left in the west prepared to match these new prices.

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