Thursday, May 19, 2011

"Don't put too much political meaning" on sales of looted cultural heritage, cautions Asian art dealer

A Taiwanese dealer today cautioned against reading too much political meaning into dispersals of Chinese cultural objects originally looted from the Summer Palace in Peking in the 19th century.

Mr Hai-Sheng Chou was speaking after a sale this afternoon at Duke's in the West Country town of Dorchester, UK.

Auctioneers Woolley and Wallis of Salisbury and Duke's in Dorchester (above left) this week held two resoundingly successful sales of Asian art as Chinese bidders arrived in force to contest two important consignments of imperial jade and other Asian works of art.

Woolley & Wallis emerged with the week's top price when a Hong Kong buyer offered £2.1 million (including premium) for a fine and rare Qing Dynasty Imperial white jade teapot and cover (right) that had been conservatively estimated at £200,000-300,000. This was just one of a host of exceptional prices in the Salisbury sale, which also saw a fine Chinese white jade conjoined vase and cover knocked down for £1.02 million (estimate £100,000-200,000) while a fine Qianlong celadon jade mythical animal group, expected to fetch £8,000-12,000, was bid up to a hammer price of £85,000.

The quality of the material on offer at Woolley and Wallis was enough to lure many Asian buyers deep into the English countryside on Wednesday and several of them were also present this afternoon (May 19) at Duke's in Dorchester. I attended that sale and spoke to one or two members of the Asian art trade afterwards.

On paper, Duke's material looked particularly promising, albeit arguably more controversial given that most of the prize lots were consigned by descendants of a Captain Gunter, a member of the King's Dragoon Guards who had been present during the looting of the Summer Palace in Peking in 1860. But clearly such back stories don't trouble Asian buyers; indeed they may even add a certain cachet.

In the event, although most of Duke's premium lots got away, a few of them failed to reach the stratospheric prices that many had been anticipating.

The sale's top lot — an exceptional Chinese white jade cup and saucer taken by Captain Gunter from the Summer Palace in 1860 (left) — more than doubled its upper estimate to bring a hammer price of £430,000. Before the sale many had expected it to bring a million pounds or more.

One specialist Asian dealer afterwards expressed his conviction that cup and saucer were not matched. "While the saucer is of superb quality, the cup is later, perhaps made to replace the original, which might have been broken or lost some time in the eighteenth or nineteenth century," he said.

This is one of the difficulties with Chinese ceramics and works of art. True connoisseurship is now all but non-existent in the London salerooms, which evens the playing-field between London and provincial auction houses who can draft in their expertise. Nor is it by any means unusual even for mainland Chinese specialists to disagree with one another over mark and period.

A Chinese 'clair de lune' double gourd vase bearing a Qianlong seal mark and an old collector's label (right), was a case in point. Some felt it was not period, while others disagreed. In the event a cautious estimate of £5,000-10,000 gave way to a telephone bid of £32,000 (hammer).

As these two sales made clear, a good deal of important Asian material now seems to be consigned to provincial auction houses like Woolley and Wallis and Duke's, both of whom can now offer the sort of expertise and service that was once confined to their London counterparts.

Nor did the 'difficult' provenance impede progress. There was a time not so very long ago when a military social provenance like that of the Gunter material would have been seen as illustrious and prestigious. Today, it may be viewed as controversial by some, but not all Asian dealers and collectors view it as an opportunity to sabotage the art market as the Chinese buyer of Christie's rat and rabbit did back in 2009.

However, aware that Ruislip auctioneers Bainbridge's are still awaiting payment of the inexplicable £53 million offered for a Qing vase at their November 2010 sale, both Woolley and Wallis and Duke's chose to request deposits from bidders intending to contest the "Premium Lots" in each sale.

Taiwanese dealer Hai-Sheng Chou, who secured a number of the fine jade items at both West Country auctions this week, told me after the sale this afternoon that most Asian buyers see these sales not as a way to settle old scores but as a chance to buy high quality material with an imperial provenance at "very reasonable" prices. "Don't put too much political meaning on these sales," he cautioned. "These are just economic opportunities." Mr Chou was among the underbidders on a magnificent yellow jade pendant (left) which had been estimated at £30,000-50,000 but which went on to realise £400,000. "I advised my client to pay no more than £300,000," he said afterwards