Astonishing Results Continue in China (Fall 2011)

Artvest’s Winter-Spring 2011 Market Analysis discussed the growing phenomenon of the Chinese art market. Results from the spring sales in New York, Hong Kong and Beijing demonstrate that the Chinese auction market continues to gain momentum at a dizzying rate. Sky-high sales results and shattered records were abundant across categories — from Ceramics to Paintings to Wine to Jewelry. There has yet to be a sign that growth is slowing.

March 22 New York: In Sotheby’s J.T. Tai sale, a gilt and embellished Famille-Rose porcelain vase estimated for as little as $800 sold for over US $18 million, stunningly exceeding expectations and accounting for nearly half of the entire sale total. The estimate was not a mistake, but rather a decision by the auction house and the estate’s advisors to let the market decide the price for a work for which there were some complications in attribution. On account of purposefully low estimates, 78% of the lots sold above their high estimates, yielding a total hammer price 7.5 times the sale’s high estimate.

April 3 Hong Kong: In the Ullens Collection sale at Sotheby’s, Zhang Xiaogang’s painting Forever Lasting Love set the new world record for Contemporary Chinese Art as well as the world record for the artist at auction at US $10.1 million.

May 22 Beijing: At China Guardian, Eagle Standing on Pine Tree by Qi Baishi sold for US $65.0 million, becoming the record-holder for the most valuable Modern Chinese Painting.

May 30 Hong Kong: At Ravenel’s spring sale, Sanyu’s Five Nudes, which last sold in 1993 at Sotheby’s Taipei for just £119,268 with premium, shot up over it’s opening bid of US $10 million, ultimately selling for $16.5 million, accounting for over half the sale total.

June 1 Hong Kong: Christie’s Inspired Connoisseurship auction, which included 30 lots, was 100% sold by lot (known as a “white glove” sale), and at the Imperial Sale an extremely rare Falangcai ‘kui dragons’ bowl sold for a hammer price of US $6.8 million, five times its low estimate.

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The overwhelming success of the Chinese Paintings and Ceramics sales confirms Chinese collectors’ unbridled enthusiasm for traditional Chinese arts, as well as for more modern and contemporary work. There were also a few notable failures this season that cannot be ignored, but these examples deserve careful consideration, as there were unique reasons for each.

April 7 Hong Kong: The first part of Sotheby’s greatly anticipated Meiyintang sale produced highly disappointing results with 30% of the porcelain going unsold. Despite exceptional provenance, the unexpectedly stringent credit restrictions and extremely high reserves secured by an ultimately ambivalent seller prevented the sale from living up to expectations. Artvest hopes that the seller and his advisors adjust their approach for the upcoming sale of additional Meiyintang property, as salesroom prices for a collection of this quality should serve as a more accurate bellwether of current market interest.

June 1 Hong Kong: Following the spectacularly successful Imperial Sale at Christie’s Hong Kong, the magnificent Famille-Rose Qianlong Revolving Vase, highlighted with its own catalogue, failed to find a buyer during the auction. Deemed similar in style to the Qianlong vase sold at Bainbridge’s in November 2010 for a surprising £53.1 million with premium (against an estimate of only £800,000 to £1.2 million), Christie’s set an aggressive estimate of HK $200 million (US $25.7 million), which the market proved unwilling to accept. Reflecting on what went wrong in an article on Artinfo.com, Pola Antebi, Head of Chinese Ceramics at Christie’s Hong Kong, conjectured, “After seeing a number of lots sold in the tens of millions of dollars for the first time [in the fall and also in New York], the expectations for these very rare and very important pieces that we did offer were the same and maybe in hindsight that wasn’t the best place to start…There was interest…but the estimates — the starting points — were a little too high, and that put people off”.

As a point of auction room psychology, it is interesting to compare the outcome of the J. T. Tai Famille-Rose vase that reached US $18 million off a US $800 estimate with this example. The auction houses’ frequent assertion that low estimates sell works and high ones do not seems to be just as true with Asian collectors as with those in the West.

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