March 2011 Feature Article

Asian Art: The Current Scene  By I. M. Chait

198. Important antique carved rhino horn

146. Antique enameled porcelain teapot

190. Tall Chinese carved ivory guanyin


As I am sure many of you are aware, through recent staggering auction sale prices, that the market for Asian art and antiques, primarily Chinese, has grown in leaps and bounds. This marketplace has been primarily fueled by the rapidly rising Chinese economy, which is creating a huge upwardly mobile middle class in Mainland China as well as creating a growing number of Chinese billionaires.

 Yes, I said billionaires with a “B”, because who else could spend millions or tens of millions of dollars on a single piece of Imperial Chinese porcelain, or furniture, or a Buddha? You might be curious as to know why it’s so important for these Chinese buyers to be collecting what we might refer to as “Imperial Treasures”. This is not just simply a matter of repatriating back to China those treasures but it also involves the single most affluent ethnic group on our planet, namely what’s normally referred to as “Overseas Chinese”.

 Having been excluded from those freedoms we may take for granted, such as the ability to travel freely and the ability to buy within our means or even beyond our means, residents of Mainland China are currently enjoying new freedoms and liberties at an unheard of rate. Where crossing borders had been banned, even within China, Chinese residents now have regularly scheduled flights to Taiwan, Macau, Japan, Europe and to America. Additionally, auction houses have sprung up in every major city in China, sometimes three or more per city and are busily gathering things from all over the world to satisfy a non-stop growing appetite for things connected to Chinese Court and Palace life.

Now the question is, what are they looking for? This question has multiple answers, is growing in scope and I will try and answer in a scale of importance.

Chinese buyer’s are looking for fine antique porcelains from the Qing and Ming Dynasties. For example, this beautiful Famille Rose enameled porcelain teapot is from the Mid Qing Dynasty and bears a private hallmark (lot 146 for reference). Or take, for example, this 17th century blue and white bowl from that period between the Ming and Qing Dynasties, usually referred to as Transitional (lot 150 for reference). Another example is this tall 16th century Ming Dynasty blue and white porcelain vase (lot 191 for reference). I also refer to this pair of porcelain Doucai plates (Doucai meaning five color), these also have a private hallmark (lot 190A for reference). I refer to these four porcelains, because each was purchased at auction from us in California over the last 10 or 15 years and now each has been resold by us for three times what was originally paid for them. This is a pretty good mark-up, so to speak, and it’s not unheard of for items selling 10 or 20 times what they were originally purchased for ten or twenty years ago.

Let me give you an example and open up the next category, which is carved rhinoceros horn. Rhino horn has been carved for hundreds of years and very often into what’s referred to as libation cups. In November 2010 we sold a tall rhinoceros horn, exquisitely carved and from an estate in Michigan. The original purchase price in 1964, from a dealer in Washington DC and including the original receipt, was $550. We estimated the piece at $75,000-$100,000 and it sold for approximately $235,000. I would say that was a good investment and we had 30 plus bidders on this item alone. 

Closely related to carved rhinoceros horn, as a collecting category, is that of carved ivory. As endangered species agreements have been made with most countries, there is almost no importation or exportation of ivory, except for antique pieces with correct customs declarations and verifications. This has radically increased the market for most ivory but more specifically, for particular subject matters in ivory and in particular large, more monumental pieces. Two examples are a Guanyin almost three feet tall (reference lot 190) and a set of Eight Immortals with fine detailing (for reference lot 192). These examples recently brought vastly higher prices than their auction estimates and were hotly contested. Other subjects in ivory that are highly collectible would be Lohans, especially a full set of 18 and Buddha images. The interesting thing about ivory is that it does not have to be terribly old to be collectable and highly valuable. Anything from the 1950’s or 60’s brings a premium and if pieces are circa 1900 to 1920 or even older, they bring a much higher premium.  

The next category I’d like to discuss is jade. Jades from the 18th century now-a-days can bring monumental prices. I will reference a white jade mountain sold to a collector some 20 years ago with an incised poem and purchased for around $30,000. Last year it was again sold by us at auction for nearly $200,000 (reference lot 210). Jade, of course, has always been connected with China and some jades, especially small carvings of animals and figures, that were relatively inexpensive years ago were put into screens of various kinds, like this six-panel wood screen we sold at auction in 2010 (reference lot 431). It had been appliquéd with antique jade animals, plaques, etc. and it originally was purchased from us around a decade ago for $3,000. It now brought over ten times that price.

There are many other categories of Chinese items that have increased dramatically in price. Many of them related and relate to articles used for what is know as the “Scholar’s table”. Again this references the attempt to connect with Imperial tradition and scholarly activities, such as painting and calligraphy.

This, of course, leads us to the subject of Chinese paintings, which can often sell for tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars. The greatest popularity in this category are Chinese paintings from the early 20th century, in classical styles executed by artists who have become famous and important.  This is very similar to Western art, in that the name of the artist supersedes the artwork itself. One category that has moved leaps and bounds, within that of Chinese paintings, are Chinese oil paintings on canvas, done within the last few decades. In January this year, we sold an oil of a seated nude pouring tea (reference lot 366), which was painted by a not well known but an up and coming artist. This painting was purchased directly from the artist in China for under $1,000 a few years ago and now sold for nearly $10,000.

Another category, which has been somewhat ignored up until the last few years, is that of Chinese furniture. There are specific woods used in Chinese furniture which are now quite rare and some even no longer available, that have become tremendously expensive. These are various hardwoods that always were associated with the highest classes and even for Imperial usage. Other furniture has now also become quite desirable. For example, in January we sold a very elaborately carved hardwood table about 150-200 years old, that was originally purchased from us about 20 years ago, for under $3,000 and which now sold for nearly $37,000.

In future articles I will discuss these categories in detail. Please note that the list of desirable items can go on and on and can include silks and other textiles, snuff bottles, cloisonné, bamboo and more. As with everything, the most important factors are what the object is, what it is made out of and the quality of workmanship executed. Of least importance now-a-days seems to be the age, as more and more later and modern things have become more and more expensive because the old ones are becoming rapidly unavailable.

 Good hunting!


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