The art market is increasingly looking like an extension of the geopolitical sphere. Suddenly, the Chinese are all over the place. The New York Asia Week, which opened Monday, could be renamed the China Week. Not that other Asian countries are absent. It is the sheer weight of China that is overwhelming.
Several factors combine to give Chinese art this predominance. One is the availability of masterpieces for sale in numbers unthinkable in any other area of the market, where penury is the overriding concern. Another is the massive surge of art collecting in mainland China, which is changing the entire Chinese art game.
On Wednesday at Christie’s, where more than a third of those attending were Chinese, the makeup of the sale bore witness to the leading part played by the Chinese. It reflected traditional Mandarin preferences, with special emphasis on jade, for which the Chinese have a passion, and smaller contingents of lacquer and rhinoceros horn vessels.
The Song period, perceived in China as a golden age, was admirably represented, thanks in part to a ceramics collection built up over some 30 years by the great American connoisseur Robert E. Barron III of New Orleans.
Brilliantly put together by Athena Zonars, head of the Chinese art department, the auction benefited from the input of the international director of Chinese art, Theow-Huang Tow, and his contacts in the Chinese world. The eagerness of the Chinese bidders charged the atmosphere with electricity and goaded Western players.
The first piece of lacquer, an exquisite square tray of the 15th century carved with plants springing from rocks, was bought for ,600 by the University of Florida Harn Museum of Art. So was a rare 16th-century tripod vessel reproducing a bronze shape from ancient China, which cost ,200. In between, an even rarer box was snatched by a Hong Kong dealer for ,200. It was decorated in the early 1500s with a scene depicting a Westerner.
One of the two great rarities in the sale was pounced upon by a buyer from mainland China. A 12panel silk screen, simulating paintings mounted in wooden frames woven under Qianlong, illustrates a trompe l’oeil technique introduced by the Jesuits in the 18th century. The screen brought 8,000, tripling Christie’s highest expectations.
Song pottery triggered furious competition. One of the gems in the sale, a black glazed jar with russet spots, cost an American collector 8,000. Later, William Chak, another Hong Kong dealer, fought to the bitter end to carry away a masterpiece incomprehensibly sold off by the St. Louis Art Museum. The lobed “Junyao dish” went up to 6,800
The Japanese, long absent from the market, are back, more determined than ever. When a celadon basin of the 12th century reproducing a brass model from Iran came up, its stark geometrical simplicity induced the famous Japanese collector, Masataka Tomita, bidding through an agent, to pay 0,000, six times the high estimate.
Interestingly, though, fantastic pots could also be had at approachable prices as a result of objects dug up by the thousands in the last 25 years in defiance of Chinese law. An admirable jar with dark brown motifs on a lighter brown ground was bought by a New York collector for ,800. Moments later, an extraordinarily beautiful jar of the seventh century, with high shoulders covered with a translucent glaze of pale aquamarine hue, was bagged for ,000 by Daniel Eskenazi, the son and business partner of the leading European connoisseur dealer in early Chinese art, Giuseppe Eskenazi of London.
On Thursday at Sotheby’s, excitement reached the boiling point. In a very uneven sale that included some hair-raising duds among the jade and pottery pieces, two rarities stood out. A blue and white vase of the early 14th century was triumphantly carried away by a Chinese bidder who paid 6,000. But the rarest piece a decanter painted in red copper enamels in the late 14th century triggered a battle between the Japanese dealer Noriyoshi Horiuchi and Giuseppe Eskenazi. Eskenazi won, paying over million for the decanter and quadrupling Sotheby’s estimate.
Splendid as they were, the auctions gave only a modest idea of the importance of the art available in the Chinese field. Taken together, the art dealers’ shows outshined what Christie’s and Sotheby’s had to offer.
Extraordinary bronzes from ancient China continue to tumble on to the market. In the Eskenazi show at Pace Wildenstein, on view until April 9, a Shang period wine vessel of the 11th century B.C., cast with stylized birds in low relief, provides insight into the circumstances in which such vessels were created. An inscription states that a man called Xiang received money which “he used to cast a vessel in memory of his father.” The vessel, as beautiful as any in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, carries a .6 million price tag.
The best Chinese sculpture is likewise to be seen in the selling shows. At Eskenazi’s, a marble seated Buddha of the eighth century, now missing its head, has a calligraphic flow to the stylized folds of the drape that makes it unforgettable. To those concerned with more recent Chinese culture, the ultimate rarity is a hitherto unpublished terra cotta figure of the seated goddess Guanyin, painted in green, ocre and white enamels dated 1500. The donor is named, as is the maker, “Qiao Bin, a craftsman of the Eastern Gate in this country” (meaning a county in Shaanxi Province).
A sound indicator that an area of the art market is prospering is provided by the ease with which works of great beauty can be acquired at prices within the reach of those who are not multi-millionaires. In James Lally’s show of “early Chinese ceramics” at 41 East 57th Street, several stoneware vessels offered as part of a New York collection formed in the last 15 years or so could have been taken straight into any of the world’s leading museums.
A brown glazed jar dating from the eighth or ninth century has bluish splashes that on closer inspection, conjure up animal forms (tapirs?). On loan to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2001, the vessel, which sold in the region of 0,000, qualifies as an underpriced world-class masterpiece.
A Song period vase of the 12th century with a glaze resembling tortoiseshell was cheap at ,000, despite very minor repairs to the surface. There is no known match to it.
Major innovative research that puts a whole category of art in perspective is another unfailing sign of rude health. This is what Edith and Joel Frankel have achieved in selling the show “Zisha: The Purple Sand of China,” on view at their gallery until April 30. Devoted to the collection of Yixing pottery owned by Thomas Y.P. Lee, who inherited it from his grandfather, Lee Gee-Rie, its publication represents a landmark in Chinese ceramics studies.
The inscriptions, which were read by Eileen Hsu of the Princeton University Museum, range from long poems to short maxims or simple signatures. They highlight the inseparable link between the concepts of a culture and its objects. On a teapot in the form of a bamboo hat, “made by Quingyun in the spring of 1821,” a single line proclaims: “The State of Buddhahood is wordless.”
Models of stark modernity in the geometrical handling of their metallic shapes are surprisingly early. If its inscriptions are to be trusted, a hexagonal teapot made by Chen Hezhi dates from 1644. By Thursday night, 25 out of the 29 pieces had found a new home. The most important vessel, a water-dropper in the shape of an eggplant signed Chen Mingyuan, cost its buyer ,000. When the show closes, it will go back to China.