Trend 1: The evolution of ‘chinese taste’
It is a common observation that, in a relatively short period of time of less than a decade, the market has become far more selective. But this, says London dealer Roger Keverne, has created opportunities for the buyer who is not necessarily focused on the collecting zeitgeist.
Keverne says that ‘Chinese taste’, the phrase associated with the Chinese domestic market that has come to mean Qing porcelain, white jades and Beijing enamels, is evolving. “There is now more interest in later Chinese bronzes, ‘classic age’ ceramics, in Ming and earlier jades, and in jades in ‘unfashionable’ colours. Spinach jade, for example, was important in the 18th century and personally appreciated by the emperor himself.
“It was prized in the Western art market from the 1920s to 1960s and then fell out of favour, but is now coming back. Spinach jade brush pots, in particular, are performing well, as they are often very good quality and were popular in the imperial households.”
The market is also beginning to correct the gulf that exists between porcelain and less fashionable mediums such as lacquer. “Lacquer is creeping up, as it is much rarer than other types of Chinese works of art. I am finding it harder to buy the good things.”
Could he put together one of the great Ming lacquer collections he assembled for clients in the 1980s and 1990s? “It’s just possible. The volume of quality has dropped across the market. Anyone who wants to put together a collection has to be more patient today than they might have had to be 30 to 40 years ago, unless they have huge amounts of money.”
Keverne says the market is yet to properly address the issue of fakes.
“The faker will never go away and he will become more skilled the more he practises his craft. It is an ever-increasing problem.
“As none of us were there when an object was made, we can never categorically give its history. Provenance has become increasingly important. Anything without it is an Aunt Sally – there to be shot at.”
“I’m personally more comfortable with the scientific tests on pottery, textiles and wood, but less so on bronzes, as, in my experience, they aren’t always bulletproof. A database based on watertight pieces is key. Comparison is useful, but you must be confident about the object with which you are comparing it.”
“Some fakes sold in the past are now re-appearing, have had their credentials established and have entered the food chain. The potential collector should beware of added inscriptions and marks, and of bargains. If it is cheap and too good to be true, then it probably is.”
Trend 2: Growth after ‘healthy correction’
Christie’s head of sale for Chinese ceramics and works of art, Kate Hunt, says a “healthy correction” has taken place in the market since the spike in prices in 2011-12.
“Overall growth is more steady and bidding is more selective. Eighteenth century imperial porcelain is always very strong but sectors such as Song ceramics, Buddhist statues and jades are really alive and kicking.”
Hunt expects this trend to continue.
“The booming market has brought a lot of material to auction in the last 10 years, so UK collections are more difficult to source.
“Since mainland Chinese buyers entered the market in 2004-05, it’s been pretty much one-way traffic. Once works have entered China, they cannot [under law] be exported so these items are not being recirculated.”
Despite this, the quantity of works remaining in Europe ensures supply remains healthy, particularly in some categories.
“In London we’re often approached with large collections of blue and white for example, while in Amsterdam [where Christie’s stages two valuation events per year] we’ve recently had some great Kangxi porcelain as well as other items that show the long heritage of Dutch trade with the East.”
In terms of where works are placed for sale, Hunt says that “certain pieces will be allocated for sale in New York, France or Hong Kong” but, due to today’s globalised marketplace, “it almost doesn’t matter where you sell exceptional pieces”.
“We work together with departments in different countries and, perhaps, some sales have more of a flavour in certain works. However, when you take something like the double gourd ‘butterfly’ vases [the pair of imperial Qianlong vases sold for £13m (plus buyer’s premium) at Christie’s in May 2017], I don’t think it would have made more anywhere else.”
Trend 3: The new generation of collectors who are changing focus
The taste of mainland Chinese buyers is changing, notes London Chinese art specialist Giuseppe Eskenazi.
“Demand for porcelain, that used to be focused on Qing and Ming, is definitely seeing a shift to the earlier dynasties and recently we are seeing greater demand, particularly from Mainland Chinese buyers, for later (Yuan and Ming) Chinese bronzes. These bronzes are also being sold at auctions in Shanghai and Beijing – that did not happen before.”
Crucially in these neglected areas (less fashionable than archaic bronzes and pieces from the Qing imperial household), supply is currently relatively plentiful. “If there isn’t the supply, the demand is not there either. Buyers want to collect in areas where they have a chance to buy something.”
The dealer believes a generation of buyers – a second wave of collectors following the wake of those who entered the market a decade ago – is beginning to make its presence felt. “In the last two years Mainland Chinese collectors have expressed particular interest in Buddhist sculpture. Many of these younger buyers, coming from a non-religious communism background, now want to rediscover their culture and there has been a resurgence in interest in Buddhism generally.”
The gallery will be offering material in this category as part of its exhibition of the second tranche of the collection of US media executive Norman Kurland (see page 29).
However, Eskenazi notes the decline of US and European buyers, priced out of the market for close to a decade, is in play. “The buyers from the East dominate, as we continue to see a decrease in interest and purchasing power from Western buyers.”
Trend 4: A new dynamism in the Japanese art market
Alex Aguilar, Japanese art specialist at Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury, is keen to throw off some of the negativity that has occasionally surrounded her chosen field.
“The market is proving quite dynamic. We are seeing a new generation of young dealers and collectors emerging both in the UK but particularly in Continental Europe.
“It’s now so difficult to enter the Chinese market – both for reasons of cost and because competition to sell an increasingly small number of available objects is so strong. Japanese works of art are deemed much more accessible.”
She cites events in France marking the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration and the Franco-Japanese relationship as indicative of current interest.
Russian and Middle Eastern buyers, too, are increasingly important purchasers of the largest or showier Meiji bronzes and the best Satsuma wares.
Japanese ceramics from an earlier era – kakiemon porcelain from the 17th and early 18th centuries – are also showing a return to form for those vendors willing to test the market. Arita wares were some of the first Japanese art Europeans were exposed to.
Aguilar said the offer of several pieces in the recent Woolley & Wallis sale in May “attracted interest from UK and European institutions who recognise the importance of this period to the history of porcelain and more attention from Japan than we had previously seen”.
In a collecting field where ivory is so commonly used, the passing of recent legalisation in the US (and a forthcoming law in the UK) doubtless represents a challenge to those who wish to buy, sell or collect Japanese art.
However, limiting the movement or sale of ivory works of art in the US has encouraged at least some collectors to look to the many splendid objects made in other less controversial organic materials.
In the specialised field of netsuke, carvings in wood and stag antler are attracting extra attention. In this sense, Aguilar says, the publication in 2017 by Sydney L Moss of a three-volume work on the eccentric Meiji artist Kokusai and the tradition of Japanese stag antler carving was certainly timely.
Trend 5: Overlooking condition issues
“Across the market supply is reducing. This is reflected in prices paid for objects with imperfections. Ten years ago they would not sell. Now buyers do not have a choice.”
Damage, says Giuseppe Eskenazi, is no longer the barrier to a sale it once was.
Other specialists concur. “There is less obsession with porcelain being perfect,” says dealer Roger Keverne. “Chips, flakes and cracks in porcelain are acceptable – providing the price reflects this. Often you can’t necessarily buy the perfect one.”
Kate Hunt of Christie’s has certainly observed this at the top end of the market at a moment when perfect ‘mark and period’ ceramics are not financially viable for most buyers.
The multi-estimate response to the (often damaged) Chinese ceramics deaccessioned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art sold by Christie’s New York in 2016 is a good example. “However, for more commonly seen pieces, buyers are less tolerant,” she says. “A well-painted blue and white Kangxi bowl, for example, worth £1500 in a perfect state, will maybe fetch around £150 if cracked.”
Damaged but good
Colin Sheaf, global head of Asian art at Bonhams, has noted the trend over the past five years. “As prices have gone higher and higher, proper collectors are attracted by something that is really good but damaged, yet can be repaired and is a tenth of the price.
“At Bonhams Bond Street the entry threshold is typically £5000 for Chinese works of art. But if there was a wonderful piece of blue and white 15th century porcelain that is broken in half and maybe only worth £3500, we’d probably keep it here. We love selling the best. The damage can be part of its back story.”
Trend 6: The early bird
Our panel of experts was consistent in the observation that the earliest Chinese ceramics – in financial terms the poor relation of Qing magnificence – are enjoying an upturn in demand, one that has followed both the appearance of some fine Song material on the market and a number of museum exhibitions in the Far East.
Chinese ‘classic age’ ceramics represent an international taste, says dealer Roger Keverne. “The Chinese have always appreciated the Song and the very best now carries a large premium. Christie’s four-part sale of the Linyushanren collection has re-emphasised this. Decades ago there was a large amount of volume on the market but, partly because China is now an importer rather than an exporter of its art, that has changed.”
Kate Hunt believes this market continues to offer value. “Top-end Song has seen a shift in prices and this has begun to filter through to mid-range material with works up to £10,000 now performing well.”
However, plenty of well-provenanced Song dynasty ceramics are still available. Qingbai ceramics with their distinctive bluish-white glaze – a quieter aesthetic compared with 18th and 19th century pieces – can be bought in the £1000-3000 range.
Christie’s online sales of Asian art are deliberately pitched at this level. “There’s a new mentality now,” says Hunt. “Five years ago it was not easy to persuade vendors to consign items for online sales. But in the last 18 months these sales have really taken off. These auctions, attracting professional people who would not necessarily fly over to another country for a viewing, are now full up until September 2019.”
Trend 7: Momentum behind Chinese paintings
Chinese paintings have traditionally been the reserve of the selling centres of Hong Kong, New York and particularly mainland China where paintings made up close to half of all Chinese art sales in 2017.
But Lazarus Halstead, head of Asian art at Chiswick Auctions in west London, believes collectors and dealers are increasingly looking further afield for their quarry.
Chinese paintings are still to be found in English collections – entering these shores since the 19th century by the way of Western missionaries, diplomats and Chinese and Hong Kong immigrants. “The prices achieved in London are now closing in on those of Hong Kong,” he says.
Halstead is not alone in suggesting some works, particularly those directly attributable to an individual artist, may be undervalued.
He says: “Quite unlike much Chinese porcelain, which was generally mass produced by a large number of artisans working together, paintings are the result of an individual artist and his style and character. While ceramics remain the dominant force in the market, paintings could yet surpass other categories to become the most expensive category within Chinese art.”
Trend 8: Location, location, location
Perhaps more than for any other field, location of sale remains vital for buying and selling Chinese art – despite globalisation and the rise of online.
So says Colin Sheaf, Bonhams’ global head of Asian art, who is well placed to argue this, with salerooms in Hong Kong, London, Edinburgh, New York, San Francisco and Paris under him. The Asian art market has settled into a “well-defined pattern”, he says, “around the three major world centres of New York, London and Hong Kong – with different categories selling well in each city”.
Export ware sells best in its original destination markets of the US East Coast and Western Europe, archaic bronzes too as they remain outside of the ‘Chinese taste’ and “sell better in New York and London than anywhere else”.
Meanwhile, the best imperial ceramics and white jade are sold in Hong Kong, such as a pair of imperial Qianlong pale green jade wine jue vessels sold for HK$11.1m (£1.1m) (including buyer’s premium) at Bonhams’ Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art in May. Bonhams’ sale this October of the Presencer Collection of Buddhist Art will also take place in Hong Kong, “now one of the two most important places, alongside New York, for selling Tibetan and Himalayan art”.
View to a purchase
Sheaf says a try-before-you-buy approach to important Chinese art, his area of specialty, is still essential. The prospective purchaser of a million-pound piece of jade, for example, “will want to get it out of the cabinet, out of the saleroom and examine its colour and clarity in daylight”.
Indeed, Sheaf notes the real market action is around such million-pound-plus objects – whether they be paintings, furniture, porcelain or jade – a market driver he calls a “flight towards blue chip”.
A good example was the set of four Ming dynasty huanghuali folding chairs or jiaoyi sold at £4.5m, and a pair of tapering cabinets or yuanjiaogui that made £1.4m. These were the undisputed highlights of Bonhams’ £9.9m Chinese art sale in London in October and a major talking point duing the 2017 Asian Art in London festival in November.
They had been acquired by Italian diplomat Marchese Taliani while he served as ambassador to China from 1938-46. Documented by the scholar Gustav Ecke in 1944, the chairs were the only known examples of their type. “They hadn’t been on the market for 60 years,” adds Sheaf. “Objects of their quality are not hard to sell but are very hard to find.”
Formerly of Christie’s, Sheaf relishes the competitiveness of the London major auction scene in the quest for such objects and collections. The big-ticket items “will remain expensive or more so”, says Sheaf, “whereas you can’t say the same of a £200 famille rose plate”.
After 37 years specialising in Asian art, Sheaf has seen fashions come and go, driven partly by supply, and tempers his enthusiasm for rising stars accordingly. “There was a big boom in splash gilt
bronze figures and vessels from the 17th-19th centuries, but they went off the boil. Like imperial clocks, they are fascinating things but there aren’t enough around to be a keynote market.” On the other hand, later Chinese bronzes are making high prices as a category that Sheaf says is still under-priced.
He is believes the Asian art market’s parameters are “pretty much laid down now” and that Chinese connoisseurship, in particular, is well established. Such an accumulation of knowledge among collectors makes selling the best things easier, Sheaf concludes, as buyers are more informed about “what matters at the end of the day – Ming and Qing porcelain, the finest jades and furniture”.