Meiyintang ‘chicken cup’
Meiyintang ‘chicken cup’, which sold for $36m in Hong Kong

Christie’s former chief executive Edward Dolman, after three years at the head of Sheikha Mayassa’s personal office in Qatar, is not renewing his contract and leaves Doha at the end of May. I asked if it was true that he was going to Phillips, as is rumoured in the Gulf? “At the moment I am still working for the sheikha, and am not in a position to discuss the future,” he told me.

When Dolman was recruited in 2011, it looked as if this was part of Qatar’s desire to buy Christie’s, an acquisition that has not happened. During his tenure, he has had to deal with various controversies; last year, a firebrand article in a local newspaper criticised the number of foreigners in the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA). More recently, the removal of the notorious “headbutting” statue by Adel Abdessemed from the Corniche and a conservative backlash over the Damien Hirst exhibition have also caused disquiet, coupled with their extravagant costs and poor attendance. Dolman said his departure was not related to these issues and that there had been “a great deal of support for the Hirst show”.

Many claim that there are significant cuts planned to the QMA’s culture budget, but Dolman told me: “As far as our projects are concerned, all are fully funded, and while the next exhibitions will be of Qatari artists, international shows will remain on the agenda.”

Meanwhile, Sotheby’s has postponed its scheduled April 24 sale in Doha to October 13, having earlier also put off a charity auction in the country. Why? According to the company, they wanted to show the works around the world first, although outside sources tell me there were “difficulties” in working with the Qataris.

Sotheby’s spring sales in Hong Kong defied the slowdown in China and produced strong results, with a number of new records set across categories, starting with the tiny Ming-dynasty “chicken cup” that sold for an upbeat US$36m – a new auction record for any Chinese work of art.

Although the take of more than US$302m for the 13 art sales suggests a recovery from the previous two years, the firm has yet to catch up with 2011, when it made over US$413m for the same series, including two porcelains from the Meiyingtang collection, which failed at auction but found buyers immediately afterwards.

The collection is probably the greatest trove of Chinese imperial treasures in private hands in the west. It was built up by Manila-born Swiss brothers Stephen and the late Gilbert Zuellig, and Sotheby’s has been gradually dispersing it.

A sale of Chinese paintings almost tripled its presale target, making more than US$50m, and with new records were set for Gao Qifeng – whose “Roaring Lion” (1927) made HK$15.6m (US$2m) – and Zhang Xiaogang, whose 1995 “Bloodline: Big Family No 3” sold for HK$94.2m (US$12m). “Potted Chrysanthemums” (1950s) by Sanyu – a painter adored in Asia, but largely unknown in the west – almost doubled estimate to HK$80.7m (US$10.4m).

Joan Miró’s ‘Women and Birds’
Joan Miró’s ‘Women and Birds’ (1968)

According to Sotheby’s deputy chairman in Asia, Nicholas Chow, the sale of the “chicken cup”, which measures just three inches across, has brought a flood of offers of others for sale; he reckons there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of copies of this precious piece out there. There are thought to be only 17 genuine examples in the world, and just three perfect ones in private hands. The name comes from the depiction of a rooster, a hen and chicks – thought to be a Confucian parable for the Chinese emperor and his subjects. It too came from the Meiyintang collection, and was bought by mainland businessman and collector Liu Yiqian, who has just opened his second private Long museum in Shanghai.

“We are seeing two sorts of buyers for Chinese ceramics at the moment,” said Chow. “A few westerners, buying a few pieces at the very highest level, and then many more Hong Kong, Taiwanese and mainland collectors, who are starting out amassing large collections but not necessarily of the very top pieces.” In the case of the “chicken cup”, however, Liu has been buying at the top for a number of years: the underbidder was London dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi, whose clients are mainly westerners.

In London, long-established art and antiques firm Malletts turned its business around in 2013, increasing turnover by 16 per cent to £11.8m and making a modest £500,000 profit. Growth came particularly from the US, said chief executive Giles Hutchinson Smith: “Business in the US is so tied to Wall Street, the real estate market and the feelgood factor – and Americans are impulsive when things are going well.” While there are some new clients, many buyers are already “supporters of the business”, he says, noting that New Yorkers like vintage French 20th-century design from the 1930s to the 1960s, while outside New York, buyers are more likely to go for traditional 18th-century English furniture.

Remember the group of 85 works by Joan Miró that were suddenly withdrawn the day they were due to go under the hammer at Christie’s London, in February? The collection belongs to the Portuguese government, after it nationalised the failed Banco Português de Negócios in 2008, but there was outcry in Portugal at the sell-off, which derailed the auction. Now an Angolan-born film producer who made his money in real estate and cereals has offered to buy the works for $60m, and has promised to place the works on show for 50 years in the Portuguese city of Porto. Christie’s – which had said it hoped to reoffer the group at a later date – did not want to comment. The prospective buyer is Rui Costa Reis, who runs RCR Media. He has backed a number of films, including submarine thriller Phantom last year, but the film was torpedoed – “dramatically waterlogged” one reviewer said – at the box office.

Georgina Adam is art market editor-at-large at The Art Newspaper

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