• Anthony Wu

Three Months of Travel! Chinese Art Highlights from New York, Hong Kong and London!


I'm back in Toronto! It's been an incredible three months. Since mid-September I have been to New York, Hong Kong, Vancouver, New York (again), and London! When I left my Toronto auction house job three years ago, I didn't think I would be traveling this much, but it has been quite exhilarating!

It's always a pleasure to visit the large international Asian Art sales room, and the quality of the objects I am able to examine these days is completely stunning! During my travels I've also been fortunate to meet many new colleagues and clients, and see old friends.

Anyways here are some of the Asian Art highlights I came across.

It started off with New York Asia Week in mid September for the sales at Bonhams, Christie's and Sotheby's. There were many wonderful Buddhist works of art and porcelain during these auction previews.

At Christie's some of the most talked Chinese art objects were:

1. Two Grey Limestone Buddhist Figures of Mahasthamaprapta (L) and Avalokiteshvara (R). Carved during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the figures are both bodhisattvas, meaning enlightened Buddhist beings. Mahasthamaprapta represents wisdom, while Avalokiteshvara represents compassion.

They were both extensively published and exhibited, and their provenance can be traced back to before 1925. Some of the galleries that showcased these two sculptures include:

1954 - Houston Museum of Fine Arts

1956 - O'Shaughnessy Art Gallery, Notre Dame University

1958 - Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford

1970 - The Arts Club of Chicago

1990 - Eskenazi London

Stylistically, these two sculptures are pinnacle examples of Tang Dynasty stone carving. They have extremely compassionate and gentle naturalistic features, and their use of flowing drapery and contrapposto (counterweight stance) is influenced by early Indo-Hellenistic prototypes of the 2nd and 3rd Century.

The figure on the left sold for USD 3,252,500, while the figure on the right sold for USD 1,992,500.

2. Also at Christie's was this magnificent Bronze Ritual Four-Legged Food Vessel from the Early Western Zhou Dynasty (11th-10th Century BC). Titled 'Qianlong's Precious Vessel: The Zuo Bao Yi Lui', this is one of the most important and rarest ancient bronze ritual vessels to come up for auction in the past few years

Typical gui form vessels sit on a rounded or square base, but this specific example stands on four rare monster-patterned legs. The body is well-cast with its decoration of ram heads along the shoulder and mythical beast handles flanking the sides.

This vessel was owned by Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799). It later came through the hands of important collectors including Wu Dacheng, C.T. Loo, Edward T. Chow, and Giuseppe Eskenazi. This object was estimated at USD 4-6 million, but unfortunately failed to find a buyer during the auction.

At Sotheby's during New York Asia Week, much was written about the Buddhist sculptures that were part of Chicago collector Stephen Junkunc III (1905-1978). However, there was also a great collection of Chinese porcelain on display. Some of the amazing objects I examined included:

3. A Rare White-Glazed 'Lingzhi' Cup, Yongzheng Mark and Period (1723-2735). This is perhaps the tiniest (and cutest) wine cup I have ever seen! Its surface is decorated with very graceful branches of lingzhi (fungus of immortality), and the colour is a very even white throughout. This mini cup ended up selling for USD 250,000 against an estimate of USD 40,000-60,000.

4. Detail of the miniature mark on this miniature cup, 大清雍正年製, daqing yongzheng nianzhi, made in the year of the Yongzheng reign.

Also at Sotheby's New York, some of the objects I really liked was this Pair of Doucai 'Floral' Bowls from the Jiaqing Period (1796-1820) of the Qing Dynasty.

5. Here's a photo of my examination of the bowls at the Sotheby's gallery. In this image I was comparing the colours and porcelain body of the bowls to see if they were an exact pair. Sometimes they may have slight variations in colour, weight, potting and condition.

6. Close up of a single bowl's 'floral' pattern in doucai 斗彩 (literally 'conjoined') enamels. This type of enamelling required multiple firings. The blue outlines was first applied and fired. This was followed by the addition of the other colours and another firing.

7. Detail of a single bowl's interior with its central medallion of florals surrounded by interlocking scrolling vines and smaller rosettes.

8. Detail of a single bowl's base with the mark 大清嘉慶年製, daqing jiaqing nianzhi, made in the year of the Jiaqing reign. This pair of doucai bowls ended up selling for USD 37,500.

After Asia Week New York, my next stop on the international Chinese Art circuit was Hong Kong. Hong Kong is still the place to be when it comes to Chinese art, especially in late September with myriad sales at Bonhams, China Guardian, Christie's, Poly Auction and Sotheby's. In addition, the Fine Art Asia antique show took place. This was a large gathering of international dealers from England, Belgium, France, Netherlands, the USA, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, etc.

But back to the auction previews! At Sotheby's, one of the major porcelain highlights was this object below:

9. An Imperial Falangcai 'Poppy' Bowl, Mark and Period of Qianlong (1736-1795). The bowl has an elegant form and features delicately painted florals and rockery in falangcai ('foreign influenced') enamels. Notice the difference in tones and shading of the enamels used - the painting is more indicative of Western art than Chinese art. This bowl is exceedingly rare and would have been made for the emperor's personal collection in the imperial court.

It originally sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong back in 2003 when it was consigned by a French private collector. This time around, the bowl sold for HKD 169,413,00 (approximately USD 22 million).

10. Detail of the bowl's meticulously painted interior depicting the 'three abundances' (peach, Buddha's hand citron, and pomegranates). This motif wishes the bearer longevity (peach), good fortune (Buddha's hand citron), and fecundity (pomegranates).

11. Detail of the bowl's reign mark in overglaze blue enamels 乾隆年製, qianlong nianzhi, made in the year of the Qianlong reign.

Sotheby's also featured a great collection of Song ceramics in their sale 'Arcadian Beauty: Exceptional Works from the Song Dynasty'. The object that really impressed me was:

12. A Junyao Purple-Splashed Bubble Bowl from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1279). I've never examined a Junyao object of this quality and significance before!

This bowl is one of the most iconic and desirable forms in Chinese Song ceramics. It is delicately potted and contains wonderful splashes of purple and green throughout the interior and exterior.

Furthermore, this bowl was formerly owned by two of the greatest Chinese ceramic collectors in Edward T. Chow (1910-1980) and Sakamoto Gorō (1923-2016).

Of note it this form of Junyao's unusual name. It is called a 'bubble bowl' because of the optical illusion it creates if you pour water into the interior - supposedly (since I haven't tried this before), it actually looks like a bubble is rising out of the cavity!

This bubble bowl ended up selling for an outstanding HKD 24,120,000 (approximately USD 1.135 million).

13. Detail of the bubble bowl's fine profile and potting.

14. Detail of the bowl's underside and 'buffed' foot rim.

Himalayan and Indian Buddhist Art was also on display in Hong Kong. This category is traditionally featured in New York or London, but with Chinese collectors' rising interest in Buddhist Art, Bonhams featured a wonderful selection in their 'Images of Devotion' auction. This sale included sculptures, paintings and ritual objects from China, Japan, Tibet, Nepal and India.

15. One of the star pieces was this Polychromed Stucco Head of Buddha, Ancient Region of Gandhara, Circa 4th/5th Century. With a height of 61 cm, this head was absolutely massive and simply gorgeous. Many gallery visitors took photos with this incredible sculpture.

This is a later Gandharan piece and even though it still has many Hellenistic influenced features, you can see that the profile and details are becoming more stylized into an Indian aesthetic. This large head of Buddha sold for HKD 4,660,000 (approximately USD 605,800).

16. Another incredible Buddhist sculpture at Bonhams was a Gilt Copper Alloy Figure of Padmapani Lokeshvara. Dated to circa 1400 Tibet, this is the bodhisattva of compassion. These standing figures are extremely rare and difficult to cast, and this was one of the more graceful examples I have come across.

The figure is also situated on a large lotus pad, which is something that I don't recall seeing before. This sculpture sold for HKD 19.3 million (approximately USD 2.5 million).

In early November, I made it out for the Asian Art in London events. This included multiple auctions at the international and regional level, gallery receptions, lectures and new museums exhibitions.

At the Christie's London sales room, they featured objects formerly from the collection of Roger Soame Jenyns (1904-1976). He was a specialist in Chinese and Japanese art, a curator at the British Museum, and a prolific writer.

The Soame Jenyns Collection was divided into two sales - the 'better' Chinese objects were sold in the live sale, while everything else, including Japanese and Himalayan art, was offered online.

17. By far the most exceptional objects from the Soame Jenyns collection was this Gilt Bronze Seated of Figure of Avalokiteshvara from the Xuande Period (1426-1435). I think the image of this sculpture speaks more than words itself.

This depiction of the bodhisattva of compassion is one of the best examples I have seen. It has all the features of an imperial early Ming Buddhist bronze with its grace, pose and fine details. What makes this figure standout is the outstretched right leg that rests on a small lotus base. The figure is already rare in itself, but this detail is what sets the sculpture apart from other similarly-sized pieces of that period.

The estimate for this figure was an ultra conservative GBP 150,000/200,000, and after an intense bidding battle, it sold for GBP 1,928,750 (approximately USD 2,469,000).

18. Detail of the sculpture's mark 大明宣德年製, daqing Xuande nianzhi, made in the year of the Xuande reign of the Ming Dynasty.

Over at Sotheby's London, two remarkable objects caught my eye. The first was:

19. A Famille Rose 'One Hudred Boys' Vase, Jiaqing Mark and Period (1796-1820). The body shows a well-painted scene of young boys participating in a dragon boat festivities.

In Chinese symbolism, artwork depicting many boys wishes to grant the owner a long lineage of male heirs. The details on this vase are actually quite fun, but I didn't actually count to see if there were indeed 100 boys present! This vase sold for GBP 466,000 (approximately USD 595,000).

20. Detail of the vase's body with young boys racing in colourful dragon boats.

21. Detail of the vase's base with the mark 大清嘉慶年製, daqing jiaqing nianzhi, made in the year of the Jiaqing reign.

22. In the jade category is this magnificent Imperial Spinach-Green Jade 'Wulao-Tu' Brushpot, Qianlong Period (1736-1795). The brushpot is delicately raised on five feet, and depicts a well-carved continuous landscape scene of five old sages, the wulao (五老).

These jade brush pots would have required a massive and precious jade boulder to work from, and would have taken months by workers in the Imperial jade workshop to produce. The figures are carefully placed in an idyllic mountain landscape, where you can see pine trees, attendants, clouds, and temples. This large brush pot sold for GBP 706,000 (approximately USD 903,000).

And finally some Japanese art! Some of the best artwork I saw this time in London was at the Bonhams sale of Fine Japanese Art. Here, they featured objects like samurai armour, scrolls, ceramics, netsukes, and bronze work.

I was especially impressed with this Gilt Bronze Koro (Censer) of Benkei, made during the Meiji Period (1868-1912).

23. This magnificent sculpture was produced by the renowned workshop of Miyao Eisuke of Yokohama. The studio is most famous for its mix-metal hyper-realistic sculptures, many of which were exported to the Western markets in the USA and Europe. Here, the historical mad warrior-monk, Benkei, in all his dynamically-muscled-glory, is supporting a fully functional censer over his head. Crazy! This sculpture sold for GBP 30,000 (approximately USD 38,000).

24. On the more subtle side of thing is a woodblock print titled Asakusa Rice Field by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) from his series 'One Hundred Views of Edo'. Rather than depicting the rice fields directly (because that would be too boring), the artist features a plump white cat staring at fields from the upper room of a brothel. The popularity of this print is quite evident by its final price - estimated at GBP2000/3000, it ended up selling for GBP 16,250 (approximately USD 21,000)!

25. Finally we have this incredible painting by Tomioka Eisen (1864-1905) depicting a Buddhist guardian with oni (demons).

It's just such an awe-inspiring painting and I love the scared expressions of the little oni as they are confronted by the massive Buddhist deity. The Japanese art market is still fairly reasonable compared to Chinese art these days - such a wonderful painting only fetched GBP 4,375 (approximately USD 5,500) at auction.

That's it for this edition of my blog. I should be in Toronto for the next little while, especially with the Toronto Asian Art auctions happening over the week. I also have a couple of Chinese Art appraisals and valuation reports to finish up, so I probably won't be traveling again until the New Year.

Thanks for reading and if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to send me an email. You can also follow me on my Instagram account @anthonywuart.com. My Instagram posts about my Asian Art adventures are definitely more frequent .

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