Welcome to West London's newest Auction House - in the heart of Chiswick
Wednesday, 2nd May 2012
As a general auction, we offer a huge variety of items in our weekly sales from furniture, to ceramics, silver and jewellery. But since we opened a year ago our auctions have also featured a varied Chinese and Oriental section and each weekly sale normally features several key Asian items. Although we are not a specialist Chinese auction house, we have developed ties with excellent Oriental dealers and are attracting a rapidly growing number of buyers from mainland China and Hong Kong week on week who either bid in the room or on the telephone. Our reputation as auctioneers of quality Asian items is growing and many Chinese items we have sold have fetched excellent prices including a 19th century cloisonné vase of double gourd form which sold for £3,100, an early 20th century Chinese carved wood brush pot which achieved a hammer price of £1,300 and a Chinese bronze incense burner with pierced lid that, after a fierce bidding war on the saleroom floor, sold for £2,460. This demand has led us to hold our first Chinese & Oriental Works of Art Sale on Tuesday 15th May. But how did an auction house in Chiswick, West London become part of such a global market phenomenon, and how does this reflect the market as a whole?
2012 is the Year of the Dragon, the god of wealth. Poignant, as earlier this year it was reported that China had officially overtaken the United States to become the world’s largest art market, accounting for 30% of the €46.1bn take, compared to 29% Stateside. It was also reported that it was the Chinese art and antiques auction sector that performed most strongly, with a dramatic rise of 177% in 2010 and a further 64% in 2011. This will come as no surprise to many auction goers. Enthusiasm for Asian works of art appears unabated with Chinese lots eclipsing estimates and high octane Asian bidding dominating at auctions, and even dominating the headlines. The undisputed driving force behind the growth in Chinese art and antiques is the increasing level of participation from Chinese buyers across the board. It is collectors from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan that fuel these prices that drive the market. Although there are a number of Western collectors, it is difficult to compete with such estimate busting prices and some smaller London specialists have even been driven out of the Chinese market at auction by the extraordinary money coming from Hong Kong and the mainland.
China represents around a quarter of the world’s population today and it has the second largest economy. Since economic restraints were loosened in 1978, China's investment and export-led economy has grown a hundredfold and has created around one million newly minted millionaires. This rising material wealth, particularly among the middle classes in China, offer enticing consumer markets such as luxury goods, fine art and antiques that were previously unattainable and unaffordable. Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia says “all cultures start with their own art”. This is likely due to cultural taste, but Chinese buyers are also keen to repatriate rarities that left china during the political turmoil of the 19th century and return their culture to China. With such spending power and spectrum of interest, no wonder Theow Tow, deputy chairman of Christies Asia said ‘the balance of power has shifted dramatically to the east’.
The Chinese taste in art and antiques is rather different to what Western buyers look for. Instead of just visual beauty, Chinese buyers are often interested in other factors. The highest physical art forms in Chinese culture are painting and calligraphy so items associated with this are highly sought after. The studio of a scholarly gentleman would have included brushes, brush pots, ink stones, small boxes for red seal paste and seals as well as natural rocks or stones for contemplation. Jade is also often more highly regarded by Chinese than Western collectors perhaps because of the semi mystical properties it is said to have. To the Chinese, jade displays the noble qualities of a gentleman, is said to be beneficial to both body and spirit and was historically placed in the tombs of important people.
There is a continuing strong demand for ceramics, particularly those that were originally made for the home market. Ancient Chinese pottery, often recently excavated from tombs and therefore new to the market, often attract great interest as do Imperially commission art and ceramics created before 1911. One of the strongest areas of Chinese ceramics is 17th and 18th century pieces such as Wanli, Kangxi and Qianlong period blue and white and polychromatic pieces. Famille Rose is also popular but is widespread and often included in Chinese ceramic sales so prices can vary due to demand. Cloisonné on metal ware, particularly from the Qianlong period, often reach excellent prices and prices for domestic Chinese furniture, especially typical 19th century items continue to sell well, despite occasional drops in the market. Chinese buyers are also displaying broader tastes in areas other than their own antiques and have shown interest in arms and armoury, wine, and Western modern masters, forcing some critics to questions whether there is any field where the prefix ‘Chinese’ doesn’t add a premium.
Many critics have questioned whether the significant growth in the Chinese market and the huge sums of money within it will lead to a collapse as great as the initial boom. Market bubbles such as silver in the Bunker Hunt years and contemporary art fuelled by Japanese wealth in the 1990s, ignored economic laws and duly led to busts. With an absence of regulation to prepare for when the art market comes to the end of its natural bull cycle and a lack of acknowledgment that new markets are often the first causalities, should the Chinese market be worried? However with China creating a billionaire a month, the market looks set to defy those laws for a while longer. In addition, there are signs of a change among buyers that suggest that the market is taking a steadier approach. These buyers are not bidding at the same levels of abandon as they were several years ago. They have become more selective and search out quality pieces with strong provenance, causing a drop in sold lots. However there still remains plenty of evidence of high prices for good quality Chinese items. The amount of Chinese pieces in the market means buyers can be discerning, so we are delighted to retain a strong collector base and pleased we can hold this specialist sale.
 The Art Newspaper, No 213, May 2010