Returned to the Homeland

A new stage has been reached in the rapidly changing market for Chinese art and it raises an intriguing question: Is there a new policy on the Chinese government’s part that encourages the massive repatriation of Chinese art of any kind?

The March sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York revealed an extraordinary rise in prices in virtually every category from the bronzes of ancient China to the porcelain wares of the early 20th century. This sudden upward leap could not have been made without the stubborn determination of countless Chinese bidders who would not let go, leaving the impression that much more was at stake than art as such.

Evidence that the market has entered a new stage first came on March 22 when Sotheby’s auctioned off the stock of the defunct New York gallery J.T. Tai & Co.

Tai Jun Tsei, who started off as a gifted young dealer in Shanghai and called himself J.T. Tai in the U.S., was a legendary figure in the Chinese art trade. He sold many pieces to Avery Brundage, whose collection forms the core of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and to Arthur Sackler, who was less discriminating but bought in bulk and so managed to lay his hands on some of the finest works of art to be seen in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

From the Chinese national perspective there is nothing to celebrate about a dealer leaving the homeland and channeling works of art by the thousands into Western possession. Cold rage about the loss of important art can be sensed across Asia. It no doubt played a part in the zeal displayed by Chinese buyers as some important bronzes or porcelains long held in the Western or Japanese collections turned up.

The fervor began with bronzes of ancient China, which aroused huge admiration among sophisticated Western collectors between the two world wars, surfacing in large numbers following railway construction in Central China. Tai, who shared this admiration, also bought many of them. While collecting ancient bronzes started in China centuries before it did in the West, opening up tombs was taboo and until the late 20th century, Chinese connoisseurs stayed away from bronzes extracted by commercial looters. Attitudes first changed in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In the last few years, buyers from Mainland China have followed suit. Originally perceived as condoning the desecration of ancestral funerary abodes, buying the buried bronzes now amounts to an act of national recovery of stolen goods. The closer they are to works in Western hands, the greater the urge to return them to the mother country.

The first spectacular outburst at Sotheby’s was triggered by a Shang tripod vessel of the 12th century B.C. engraved with a marvelous taotie mask that compares with another in the Sackler Gallery. While the stylization of the mythical animal’s face is admirable, the surface patina is not. The $40,000 to $60,000 estimate seemed generous. Chinese bidders sent it climbing to $278,500.

Another vessel, cast in the 11th century B.C. also compared with a Sackler Gallery piece. The model is not rare and the quality of the bronze is poor. Estimated at $20,000 to $30,000, it surprisingly climbed to $170,500. The story repeated itself several times over utterly indifferent pieces. Chinese bidders acted as if they had been followers of a sect determined to gather the relics of a revered leader.

Frenzied bidding was not confined to ancient bronzes. A yellow glass vase thought to be worth $10,000 to $15,000 went up to $158,500. A Qianlong seal mark indicates that it was commissioned for the imperial palace and Christie’s had not taken into account the obsession of the new bidders with all things imperial. This obsession, which in the past was linked to personal status-seeking, is becoming an expression of patriotism because the palace symbolizes the glory of Chinese culture.

On March 22, it succeeded in overcoming the traditional bias against visible damage. A cinnabar-lacquer chest with the Jiajing six-character mark on the underside has a superb composition carved on the front but the panel is warped and is missing a thin strip on one side. With its $8,000 to $12,000 estimate, the damaged object would have failed to sell until recently. Instead it made $158,500.

A second sale on March 23 at Sotheby’s revealed another side to the current upheaval in the market for Chinese art. It began with a collection of Song ceramics evidently built up by an investor in recent years. Some of the best works could be traced back to early Western collections. In 1952 the Boston-based dealer Georges de Batz had acquired the ultimate masterpiece in the group — a 12th-century celadon bowl made under the Southern Song Dynasty. The splendid piece carried a $30,000 to $50,000 estimate and brought $122,500.

Japanese provenance made a rare Northern Song dish irresistible. Carved with stylized peonies on the ivory slip under a colorless glaze, it had been exhibited in 1987 at the Toguri Museum of Art as part of a Tokyo private collection. Fitted with the pewter rim that most of the Ding porcelains excavated between the two world wars retain, the fine 11th-century vessel rose to $866,500, far above the high estimate.

The other great masterpiece in the Song collection sale was a high-shouldered vase with a short neck of the meiping type. An admirable clear-cut peony pattern in blackish brown is carved on the ivory-colored slip. While its vigorous thrust would have appealed to the Japanese collectors who dominated the market in the 1960s and the ’70s, the boldness of the large-size motifs does not fit Song aesthetics as beloved in China. Yet the vase more than doubled expectations at $506,500.

The clearest confirmation that considerations unrelated to the love of art were driving Chinese bidders came when a bowl with the toned bluish glaze and purple touches of Jun porcelain appeared.

Scholars now think that this particular category of bowls, which are characterized by numbered ideograms molded on the underside, was destined for imperial use — several numbered Jun vessels are preserved in the National Palace Museum of Taipei and the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Sotheby’s example was hardly one of those pieces that make you hold your breath in admiration. But in the 20th century it had belonged to a noted collector, Captain Vivian Bulkeley-Johnson and had probably reached England after the Imperial Palaces in Beijing were sacked by British and French troops on two separate occasions in the 19th century.

Sold at Sotheby’s London for £78,000 ($130,300) on November 12, 2003, it now carried a $200,000 to $300,000 estimate. Chinese cold anger sent the piece skyrocketing to $2.21 million.

That art as such mattered little was demonstrated in a different fashion when a celadon cup and saucer made in the 14th century under the Mongol Dynasty brought a mere $11,875. With its unglazed biscuit rosette molded in low relief in the center of the saucer, it was arguably the rarest lot in the entire sale. Few took notice. In striking contrast, a celadon vase from the same period that once graced the famed collection of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Clark quadrupled its estimate and ended up at an astonishing $506,500.

Chinese enthusiasm continued unabated at the sale of various works of art consigned by the descendants of Robert E. and Katharine Chew Tod. The American couple had acquired the objects before World War II.

A pair of white jade bowls assigned to the 18th century and expected by Sotheby’s to be knocked down between $20,000 and $30,000 made $194,500. Ten lots down, the Chinese bidders went berserk. A white jade vessel and cover in a Revivalist style inspired by 12th-century B.C. Shang bronzes was inscribed with a poem by Qianlong and a date corresponding to 1776. It looked so much like a parody that it was hard to believe that it might be of considerable age. Sotheby’s experts gave it a $70,000 to $90,000 estimate, which seemed ambitious. But they were too timid. The spoofy jade brought a stupendous $1.65 million.

Another extravagant score followed later in the sale when a pair of huanghuali wood armchairs that were given a 17th-century date came up. An American consignor had acquired these in Hong Kong from Peter Lai Antiques. The estimate was $200,000 to $300,000. They inexplicably fetched $2.77 million.

Amazing as these prices may be, they are perhaps less significant than the wholesale Chinese bidding on objects that were neither rare nor singled out by any distinctive mark.

A pleasing but common huanghuali cabinet with brassy metallic mounts made $62,500. A pair of cloisonné enamel joined vases to which Sotheby’s assigned no period because of their recent manufacture brought $25,000, followed by another pair of cloisonné enamel vases not much older than the late 19th century, which sold for $68,500.

That was not all. Any work of art that could be seen to have a link with Chinese history, no matter how pedestrian its execution might be, triggered intense bidding matches among the Chinese who sat in the room. A scroll depicting the siege of Pingyu during the imperial campaign against the Nian uprising (1853-1868) was credited to Qingkuang, active in the late 19th century "with others." The wooden handling of the characters adds little to the glory of Chinese painting. That did not prevent the mediocre work exceeding the high estimate to realize $1.98 million.

Inane bidding culminated when a famille rose vase rightly catalogued as a 20th-century piece estimated at $6,000 to $8,000 made $1.31 million. It was followed by a second vase, which was described as "probably Republican period." Change "probably" to "very obviously" considering the many obvious mistakes in this attempted copy of a palace model of the Qianlong period and you have got it right. Sotheby’s estimate was $800 to $1,200. The new Chinese bidders fighting against each other decided it was worth just over $18 million. At that point, it felt as if the Chinese were on a mission to buy back any works, good or bad, early or recent, that had fallen into foreign hands.

At Christie’s on March 24, the indiscriminate buying went on in every category.

Ancient bronzes were chased more vigorously than ever and this time even pieces that had left China in recent years were targeted. A Shang or early Western Zhou vessel of the 11th century nearly tripled the high estimate at $338,500. Its consignor had bought it in Hong Kong on January 14, 1998.

Another ritual vessel of the same period, powerful but with a nasty patina, defied the experts’ wildest predictions as it made $782,500 — more than eight times the high estimate. Christie’s catalogue stated that it had been acquired "prior to 1997." A mediocre early Western Zhou vessel bought in Hong Kong in 1991 followed at $302,500, far above the $120,000 high estimate.

As at Sotheby’s, banal objects that were given no period in the catalogue because of their recent manufacture commanded inexplicable prices. A birdcage of hongmu wood, probably made shortly before it was bought in 1974 or 1975 by an American passing through Shanghai ended up at $80,500, 11 times the high estimate.

Rarity sent two or three truly beautiful pieces soaring to inconceivable levels but here, bizarrely, the Chinese gave up. An admirable gilt-bronze figure of the standing female Guanyin cast in the Dali kingdom of present-day Yunnan, which had not yet become sinicized in the 12th century, quadrupled its high estimate and made $4 million. On its previous New York appearance, also at Christie’s on September 20, 2002, the price had been a more moderate $284,400. Giuseppe Eskenazi, the world leader in top Chinese art, bought the Guanyin.

The same intense activity went on in the two galleries that had put together the most impressive selling shows held to coincide with the auctions.

Eskenazi and his son and business partner, Daniel, had brought over from London a grand array of sundry works of art ranging from the 3rd century B.C. to the Qianlong emperor’s reign (1736-1795). At the opening, the Chinese scooped up the four porcelains in the show. A $400,000 Qianlong blue and white vase pleased its buyer so much that he insisted through his translator on personally carrying it away.

Here too, however, the Chinese missed out on those pieces for which most top-level collectors will fight to the finish. A small gold and silver courtier wearing an Iranian-style tunic and standing with hands crossed in the Middle Eastern deferential manner was the most important discovery that surfaced in March. It is a so far unique example of a 3rd century B.C. character from the Middle East in Chinese metalwork predating the Han Dynasty. The catalogue omitted that detail. The $280,000 object is now in a Persian Gulf emirate.

The other rarity was a libation cup. Seemingly destined for the Far East, it had the rare distinction of being inscribed with a short poem followed by a date, 1582, and two characters that read "Master of the Lotus," presumably giving the nom de plume of the author of the poem or the artist, or perhaps both. Ignored by the Chinese, the museum piece was in fact reserved by an American museum.

In James Lally’s gallery on East 57th Street, nearly all the greatest pieces again went to Westerners.

A Western Zhou taotie mask of the 10th century b.c., the most impressive to reach the Western market, had been ensconced in a Geneva collection since the 1950s. The bronze fitting, nine inches across, changed hands as soon as the selling show opened on March 19. The $200,000 price tag was not a problem.

A bronze lamp designed in the shape of a reclining ram around the 2nd or 1st century B.C. remains one of the two or three most beautiful examples of its period now recorded. It once belonged to Lord Cunliffe, the famous British collector of Chinese art who died in 1963. Modestly priced at $45,000, it was pounced upon by a young American collector of Greek and Roman antiquities.

True, the most beautiful of all pieces, an admirable Western Zhou vessel of the 11th or 10th century B.C., went to a collector who belongs to both the East and the West.

An American of Chinese parentage born into a highly cultivated family, the buyer was not simply attracted to the hypnotic power of the bronze. Inside, a seven-character inscription is now understood to say "Ya Er made this vessel for Zuding." It had fascinated six generations of Chinese scholars be- fore him and was published as early as 1850 by Wu Shifen in a groundbreaking compilation of inscriptions on ancient bronze vessels.

Such information may seem irrelevant to the new buyers from Mainland China. Their simpler approach could be called the vacuum cleaner technique. They gobble up everything unless they are confronted with exceptionally stiff resistance or extremely complex issues related to cultural history and more generally to connoisseurship.

Sadly of course, those are precisely the occasions when dogged determination is highly advisable when you enjoy the limitless budget of the new Chinese buyers. 

"Returned to the Homeland" originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's June 2011 Table of Contents.