Sotheby's announced today that during their fall season in Hong Kong this October they will be offering a second tranche of pieces from the storied Meiyintang Chinese porcelain collection — electrifying news for anyone with an interest in Chinese antiquities.
The Meiyintang collection was built up over more than 50 years by two Swiss brothers, Stephen and Gilbert Zuellig, who were advised by the legendary dealer and connoisseur Edward Chow and the elder statesman of antiquities collectors, Giuseppe Eskenazi. It comprises some 2,000 pieces ranging from the Neolithic period through to the Qing Dynasty and is widely considered to be the greatest collection of Chinese porcelain still in private hands in the west.
The first group of objects from the collection was offered into a skittish market in Hong Kong this spring and secured respectable prices, though it fell rather short of what could have been expected for objects with such impeccable provenance. Back then the market was spooked by rumors of "deadbeat buyers" in the wake of the Bainbridges vase imbroglio, which led many collectors to feel nervous about bidding against possibly delinquent opposition. At the same time some newer collectors were put off by the auction houses' deposit policies, which were being strictly enforced last season by both Sotheby's and Christie's. With the antiquities market now steadying after a successful first half of the year, this second Meiyintang sale will be a significant new test of the sector's strength.
In advance of the announcement, Sotheby's international head of Chinese ceramics and works of art Nicolas Chow spoke exclusively to ARTINFO China and put a fascinating gloss (who knew Ming vases could be "macho"?) on a sale in which both buyers and sellers will be hoping for firm ground after a difficult spring season.
Tell us about the Meiyintang collection pieces you will be offering in October.
We are offering a slightly tighter group from the collection this season — around 41 pieces — but again we are offering a number of iconic pieces. Notably we have objects from the high points of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, which is the 15th century for the Ming — the Yongle and Chenghua imperial periods — and the early 18th century for the Qing, which was the pinnacle of refinement in that dynasty. So for the Ming period we have this very large meiping vase from the Yongle period (est. HK$80 million–100 million, or $10.3 million-12.8 million). Among the Ming vases sold by Sotheby's in the last 30-40 years this would be one of the finest examples. Firstly, it's much larger than most meiping and it has a much more complex design with multiple fruit sprays. The blues are very strong and inky, there's a lot of heaping and piling which is when the cobalt rises through the glaze and gives you these very strong blotches of black on the surface, something very characteristic of the early 15th century that you find very strongly on this piece. And then its shape is rather different too. It's a rather more masculine form with rounded shoulders as opposed to the smaller ones which are more waisted — in some ways I would say it is a rather macho object. Then we also have this Ming Dynasty moon flask, also Yongle period (est. HK$50 million-80 million, or $6.4 million-10.3 million) and also of an extraordinary size. In fact this season we have mainly focused on offering large and imposing pieces, because what we have seen in the market — both among our classic collectors and, of course, for our newer collectors coming in — is that, to some extent, size matters.So we have chosen a few works with a very strong presence, like this moon flask. There are only six known like it in the whole world, mostly in public collections. This one was last sold in the early '90s at Christie's in London. With flasks like these, of this shape, it's only the second or third time ever that one has appeared at auction. It's very rare.
What about the Qing Dynasty pieces?
The highlight is also a very large vase, a tianqiuping (est. HK$80 million-100 million, or $10.3 million-12.8 million), which is the largest vase you find in the Qing Dynasty. This one is rather unusual, decorated with peaches in a variety of enamels — it's probably been 15 to 20 years since one like this has appeared on the market. The design, with nine peaches, is one that conveys great blessing and longevity. It's a very classic object and a very desirable one at this moment.
These pieces are certainly aimed at the sweet spot of the market, and the estimates seem to me to be rather conservative.
We've made a great effort to have very enticing estimates this season, and from the feedback I have already received from two or three key collectors that I have shown these objects to, I think this sale will go extremely well. I wanted to make sure coming into this season that our estimates are well calibrated and the feedback I've received so far is extremely positive. I think we will see some good balanced buying from different parts of the globe.
How do you feel to be following the last sale, which although it attracted respectable results was on the whole considered a disappointment?
I feel very confident about this selection of objects. If you look at our results and our competitor's results last season in this sector you can see it was quite a difficult season all around. Something that really affected the psychology of collectors last season was the news coming out just a few weeks before the season began that the vase purchased at Bainbridges last year had not been paid for. And suddenly there was this paranoia that prices being paid at the highest level were actually not for real, so you had collectors who want to collect at this high level thinking, "Do I really want to bid against someone who may not be paying? Maybe I should just wait to see what happens." The coverage of the Bainbridges vase had a negative impact on the entire Hong Kong spring season in our category.
It is interesting how much that one sale — the Bainbridges sale — and the story following has affected the market and caused cynicism about it
You're absolutely right — there's been so much speculation about it, but it's such an isolated case. I'm not saying we've never seen non-payments before, but it's definitely an infinitely small proportion of the total. However, the Bainbridges story has impacted the way people bid, especially at the higher levels. Last season there was so much press going on around the world just in the weeks before the sale and you have collectors in New York saying, "Am I paying 50 percent more than the market price because some crazy new buyer from China is playing?" I think that since last season in Hong Kong we have seen some price stabilisation and that is good for the market. We've seen some very strong prices and the fact that we were able to sell the top lots right after the spring Hong Kong sale shows that the demand was strong. Since then we've had great sales in Paris, great sales in London, and the very strict policy we imposed on non-payers and bad payers last season has worked. We got all the payments on time, pretty much.
So will you be imposing the same strict deposit and payment policies as last season?
We haven't announced yet exactly the parameters, but they'll be very similar rules to last season. They have proved to be very effective and we will continue imposing them.
On a personal note, it must be gratifying to be involved in selling a collection that your grandfather, Edward Chow, was so instrumental in nurturing.
Absolutely — it's been wonderful. Before getting involved in this sale many of the objects I'd never seen, never handled, so it's really quite emotional. And the collector [Stephen Zuellig, the surviving brother behind the collection] has expressed a great deal of gratitude towards my grandfather and it has really been wonderful working with him.
Is there anything you can say about the collector's motivation in wanting to sell now?
I wouldn't want to speculate on his motivations, but I will say that the average collecting cycle for most collectors is ten, maybe 20 years, and here is someone who has collected for over 50 years. That's quite unusual. That a collector comes to the end of a collecting cycle and wants to sell is not unusual, but that a collection comes to market after 50-plus years of collecting — that is quite remarkable. To sustain such a passion for a subject, over such a time, is really wonderful, and we are really hoping that this might inspire some of the new collectors who are just starting on their journey today.
Are there any other highlights in the season aside from the Meiyintang pieces that you'd like to mention?
Apart from the porcelain, in the works of art sector we have something quite extraordinary — a jade seal which belonged to the Qing emperor Yongzheng. This relatively small seal is originally from the collection of ?mile Guimet the great French industrialist and collector [of the eponymous Musee Guimet in Paris] which is an amazing provenance. In 2008 we sold the first part of this collection of seals — there were eight extraordinary imperial seals. Now there are a few seals left from that collection and this is one of them.
Why is it special?
You will have seen that over recent seasons we have sold a number of seals from the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong. This is the first from the Qing Dynasty emperor Yongzheng, who was Qianlong's father. Yongzheng's reign is of course much shorter than Qianlong — just over ten years as opposed to 60 years — and he was also probably rather less of a megalomaniac than his son. Anyway there were many fewer seals cut during his reign and they are just that much harder to find. This is the first one that we have ever offered on the market. We have an estimate of HK$20 to 30 million [$2.6-3.8 million] on that, and we believe that is quite conservative.