Society

Jaded no more

Auction houses report revival in Chinese antique sales

Rare: a "Dragon" moonflask

“Nothing demonstrates more clearly the art-market axiom that art goes where the money is,” the deputy chairman at auction house Bonhams recently told the Economist.

He was referring to a round of fine Chinese art auctions in London. In Bonhams’ case, two Chinese bidders fought (by telephone) over an imperial white jade seal. It was finally sold for $510,350, double the auction estimate.

However, Bonhams trailed rival Sotheby’s in its own sale of another imperial jade seal. This one came in at $5.91 million, six times Sotheby’s top estimate.

The five-by-five inch antique, carved with a pair of dragons, was made for the celebration of Emperor Qianlong’s 80th birthday in 1791. Eight bidders competed for it, and it was eventually sold to a dealer (who prefers to remain anonymous) in the auction room, Sotheby’s said. According to Nicholas Chow, Sotheby’s international head of Chinese ceramics and works of art, the emperor used the imperial seal to mark many of his scrolls and paintings. That makes the object particularly appealing because it is like “holding Imperial power in the palm of your hand.”

So happier days are back for auctioneers?

Not quite. 104 of the 319 lots offered in Christie’s Chinese ceramics and fine art auction failed to sell. Buyers may have become more selective, shying away from anything believed to be over-priced or of less than stellar quality.

However, auctioneers say sentiment has still improved significantly compared to earlier in the year. Patti Wong, Sotheby’s Asia chairman, described autumn Asian sales as “strong,” due primarily to the increased participation of mainland buyers.

“The Chinese [antiques] market is stronger than other markets, it’s going to keep going up, because it’s getting thinner on the ground and more people are buying it, especially in China,” London-based Asian art dealer Nader Rasti told Reuters.

While sales of more traditional categories like Chinese paintings and antiques has picked up, prices for contemporary Chinese art continue to lag.

Even the more established artists like Zeng Fanzhi are reporting tough times. In May last year, Zeng made headlines with a record-breaking price ($9.7 million) for his painting Mask Series 1996 No.6. Yet in recent auctions, much of the artist’s other work has remained unsold, says Sanlian Life Weekly.

Antiques are currently seen as better investments, says the Economic Observer. The available market is more finite, improving scarcity value. By contrast, contemporary paintings have suffered from a surge in supply, even from the more recognised artists.

The recent revival of interest in antiques is breathing new life into more than the auction market. It has also been rejuvenating for Jingdezhen, a region that once held sway as China’s porcelain capital.

With a history of more than 1,000 years, Jingdezhen was renowned for making top-quality porcelain for imperial use – everything from blue-and-white Ming vases to rich yellow-and-turquoise teacups.

In the last half century, the city’s reputation for craftmanship had withered, and Jingdezhen has struggled to stay competitive with more market-oriented coastal cities.

But the renewed interest in antiques and fine porcelain is rekindling interest in Jingdezhen’s porcelain past. New kilns are firing, and tourists are visiting the city to investigate its artisan heritage once again.

“Handmade crafts are treasures, and we shouldn’t abandon them,” Sun Lixin, owner of a porcelain store in Jingdezhen, told the China Daily.


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