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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Wu

Summer News and Chinese Art Highlights from the Spring of 2019!

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

I can't believe we're already halfway through summer!

The past couple of months have been fairly busy for me with the Toronto Asian Art sales and a trip to Vancouver at the end of June, numerous appraisals and valuations in July, AND the completion of my latest Chinese Art auction market trends report for Orientations magazine.

This article will be published in their September/October issue and will be available in most museum bookstores by the end of August. As usual, I will be going through current trends in the Chinese works of art and paintings categories at Bonhams, Christie's and Sotheby's.

I've also been actively working on the Giga Pearl Project over the past couple of months. If you haven't heard about it yet either through news reports or in my previous blog, the Giga Pearl is the world's largest certified natural pearl and weighs an incredible 27.65 Kg! There will be more exciting news on this topic once the Fall season starts.

This past spring has also been my busiest since leaving my post at the auction house and becoming an independent art consultant. Over the past four years, I've had the privilege to work on some incredible projects and meet wonderful clients from all over the world.

At the same time my travel schedule has been quite intense! At this current pace, I will have been on the road for over 120 days by the end of the calendar year. Since January, I have been to Montreal, Chicago, Boston, New York, Hong Kong, Taipei, Vancouver, Cleveland, and Ottawa.

Anyways, I wanted to share some of the great artworks I encountered over the past couple of months, most of which are from the auction previews in New York and Hong Kong.

One of my bigger trips in the Spring is always to Asia Week New York where major auctions at Bonhams, Christie's, and Sotheby's take place. In addition, there are a plentitude of Asian Art exhibition openings at various museums and and galleries.

At Christie's some of the most impressive objects up for auction came from the Irving Collection. Collected by the recently deceased Florence and Herbert Irving, owners of a major food distribution business, the artworks up for sale range from jade carvings, religious sculptures, lacquerwares and paintings. The Irvings were major New York philanthropists and art collectors with major gifts benefiting Columbia University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. .

There were so many highlights form their sale include, but I particularly liked this rare 12th Century Gilt Bronze Figure of Acuoye Guanyin from the Dali Kingdom of Yunnan Province.

With an estimate of USD 2-3 million, this magnificent sculpture was once owned by renowned New York collector and dealer Robert H Ellsworth. It depicts an extremely rare 'preaching' form of the bodhisattva of compassion and sold for USD 1.935 million.

Here is a detail of the bronze figure's reverse and the lotus-form wood stand.

Another piece I really liked from the Irving Collection is this large White Jade 'Luohan' Boulder from the Qianlong Period (1736-1795). The size of the jade boulder is impressive enough, but the carving is just truly stunning.

The figure of the aescitc monk and elephant are so well-detailed, and you really get a sense of depth with the multiple planes involved. I was especially fascinated with the gnarled twisting tree on the left as well. This carving was conservatively estimated at USD 200,000-300,000 but ended up selling for USD 1.096 million.

A view of the boulder's reverse also shows a high level of detail and depth. I was surrounded by colleagues all vying for the best angle of this wonderful carving.

Over at Sotheby's New York, I really liked this Large Famille Verte 'Banquet' Dish from the Kangxi Period (1662-1722). With an estimate of USD 150,000-250,000, this dish was offered at their sale Kangxi: The Jie Rui Tang Collection Part II. This is the second offering of 17th Century famille verte wares from the collection of tech executive Jeffrey P. Stamen (the first part was offered in March 2018).

This dish features a scene from the Chinese novel Romance of Sui and Tang. The Emperor Yang (c. 604-635) of the Sui Dynasty (581-607) had the reputation of spending his resources on lavish parties and ignoring his stately duties. This is a morality tale as his taste for excess led to multiple economic and military failures, and his eventual assassination.

With a large diameter of 51.5 cm, this dish shows one of the extravagant banquets Emperor Yang hosts in his honour. The level of detail is quite extraordinary with numerous detailed attendants and an elaborate palace architecture. This dish sold for USD 187,500.

Below is a detail of a smiling Emperor Yang enjoying his party.

Also at Sotheby's New York was one of the 'feel-good' stories of the Spring season. An American lady found the below sculpture at a Missouri estate sale back in 1999 for (by her account) USD 75-100. She held onto the sculpture for almost twenty years before bringing it to the to the Antiques Roadshow in St. Louis in 2018. Here, the appraiser identified the figure to be Guanyin and dated it to the early 15th Century. At a conservative retail price, he appraised the sculpture to be worth between USD 100,000-125,000.

Extremely impressed, the owner took the figure Sotheby’s where it was identified as a rare form of Guanyin known as Cintamanicakra Avalokiteshvara from the late Tang Dynasty to Five Dynasties (9th to 10th Century).

Since the sculpture had some losses, the auction house gave it a conservative estimate of USD 60,000-80,000. By the time of the sale, its rarity was exposed and the background story inspired the attention of potential buyers. In the end this Guanyin figure sold for an incredible USD 2.06 million.

At Bonhams New York, they were featuring a wide selection of Japanese shin-hanga (new wave) woodblock prints in their auction of Fine Japanese Prints. As opposed to the traditional ukiyo-e (floating world) prints of the 18th and 19th Century (these include artists such as Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige), shin-hanga prints from the first-half of the 20th Century showcased a 'modern' Japan with respect to subject matter and style.

If you have been following me on Instagram, you will know I love these types of prints - in particular works by Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950) and Kawase Hasui (1883-1957).

At the Bonhams preview, there was one famous shin-hanga print I was drawn to. Before the Mirror (1916) by Ito Shinsui (1898-1972) is one of the most famous 'modern woman' prints of this period with respect to its rarity and composition.

Here, we see an image of a woman in a red kimono gazing at a mirror. Unbeknownst to her, the viewer is gazing at her as well. Does she know she is being looked at? With an estimate of USD 18,000-25,000 this ground-breaking print ended up selling for USD 43,825.

In late March, I had the opportunity to visit Hong Kong for a week to visit museums and the various auctions at Sotheby's, China Guardian and Poly Auction. There were also smaller shows at Bonhams, Christies and the Fine Art Asia Fair.

Over at China Guardian, I paid particular attention to was this extremely rare Tea Dust Glazed Teapot with a Yongzheng four-character mark and of the period (1723-1735).

I have never examined a teapot with this type of glaze before. It is seldom seen and there are only a few recorded examples in existence. It came from the former collection of Victor Rienaecker and with an estimate of HKD 3.8-4.2 million (approximately USD 490,000-540,000) it sold for HKD 5.42 million (approximately USD 695,000).

Detail of the four-character mark Yongzheng nianzhi (雍正年製), 'made in the year of the Yongzheng reign'.

At Poly Auction, they had a selection of impressive objects in their sale Immaculately Exquisite: The Ten Views of Lingbi Rock Retreat Collection of Early Ming Gilt-Lacquer Guandi and Chinese Ceramics. The stunner was by far the Imperial Gilt Lacquer Bronze Figure of Guandi. In addition its massive height of 187 cm, the figure had a long list of prestigious provenance including Yamanaka and the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston.

This depiction of the god of war was made during the early Ming Dynasty (14th/15th Century) and is one of the largest examples ever found. Visitors were even lining up to take photos! Despite having what many people thought was a 'aggressive' estimate of HKD 15-20 million (approximately USD 1.9-3.2 million), it sold for many times more at HKD 55.46 million (approximately USD 7 million).

The catalogue for the Lingbi Rock Retreat Collecton featured many porcelain and ceramic wares as well. I didn't manage to examine every item, but I did catch one of the key pieces in this Blue and White and Copper Red 'Dragon' Moonflask with Qianlong mark and of the period (1736-1795).

This is one of the most spectacular moonflasks I have ever seen - not only for its rare shape, but also for the quality of the large Qianlong dragon. Copper red is extremely difficult to fire and would be discoloured to a greyish green/red blur if not done right. The firing on this particular moonflask is near perfect.

Once belonging to an European Private Collection in the 1960's, it was sold through Sotheby's Hong Kong back in April of 2009. The current owner acquired it from the London dealer Eskenazi. This piece was estimated at HKD 22-32 million (approximately USD 2.8-4.1 million), and sold for HKD 33.03 million (approximately USD 4.02 million).

Here is an 'upside-down' view of the mark da Qing Qianlong nianzhi (大清乾隆年制), 'made during the Qianlong reign of the Qing Dynasty‘. You can also see the old Sotheby's Hong Kong sticker stating this object was lot 1605 from their 8 April 2009 auction.

At Sotheby's Hong Kong, I was very fortunate examine objects from their anticipated sale Tianminlou: Selected Imperial Ceramics from the Tianminlou Collection. This grouping of 18 objects comes from one of the most famous porcelain collections in the world.

With a focus on the highest quality of Yuan, Ming and Qing imperial porcelain, the collection was founded by legendary collector Ko Shih Chao (1911-1992) during the 1970's and 80's. Many of his pieces were exhibited at one of the Hong Kong Museum of Art's memorable exhibition and publication - Chinese Porcelain: The S. C. Ko Tianminlou Collection (1987).

I was lucky enough to visit the Tianminlou Collection (now kept by his son) a couple of times over the past ten years, so it is somewhat bittersweet that a selection of the objects were being sold. One of the highlight objects I handled this time around was this Blue and White 'Floral' Bowl with a Xuande Mark and of the Period (1426-1435).

This rare bowl features immaculate cobalt blues imported via the Middle East through the Silk Road. The quality of the large floral sprays are simply elegant. The auction estimate was a conservative HKD 4-6 million (approximately USD 510,000-765,000) but in the end, it sold for HKD 10.975 million (approximately USD 1.4 million).

Here's a detail of the bowl's interior. The central medallion contains a large lotus blossom while the sides feature large lotuses and peonies amidst scrolling vine. There is a definite Middle-Eastern influence to the design. I also absolutely love the band of miniature florals around the rim.

Here is the base with the mark da Ming Xuande nianzhi (大明宣德年制), 'made during the Xuande reign of the Ming Dynasty'. You can also see the impressive collection of provenance and exhibition labels, including one from the major dealer Spink and Son, London, stating this object once belonged to the revered collector Mrs Alfred Clark (1890-1976).

Because of the rarity of Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) porcelain, I very seldom get to handle them. Nonetheless I did get to examine a Moulded Blue and White Dragon Stem Cup during my visit to Sotheby's Hong Kong. It was part of the catalogue Six Treasures from an Important Private Collection.

The shape and potting of this porcelain stem cup was highly advanced for its time, and the sinuous three-clawed dragon was just incredible to look at. This cup was estimated at HKD 6-8 million (approximately USD 785,000-1 million), and realized a final price of HKD 6.175 million (approximately USD 787,000). One of its previous owners was the famed Chicago collector Stephen Junkunc III (1905-1978).

A view of the stem cup's interior and hidden design of dragons amongst clouds.

Finally at Sotheby's was this Simpsons 'parody' painting by contemporary artist Kaws (1974- ). I'm not really into contemporary art, but I definitely grew up watching Simpsons!

Kaws painted The Kaws Album (2005) in obvious reference to the Beatle's canonical album cover Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band, and featured as many of the early Simpsons characters in classic Kaw's style with 'x' eyes and occasional puffs of clown hair.

Estimated at HKD 6-8 million HKD (approximately USD 764,000-1,010,000), this painting was sold as part of the streetwear entrepreneur Nigo's collection offered in his sale NIGOLDENEYE Vol. 1. The Kaws Album ended up selling for HKD 115,996 (USD 14.78 million) setting a new record for the artist.

Finally at Christie's Hong Kong, I was able to view (again) their much anticipated Larson Yongzheng Vase. This Large Blue and White ‘Fruit and Flower Spray’ Vase has a Yongzheng mark and is of the period (1723-1735).

It came from the collection of Frans August Larson (1870-1957), a Swedish missionary, explorer and businessman whose familiarity with the Mongolian region earned him the nickname of the ‘Duke of Mongolia’. He immigrated to America in 1939 where the vase passed down through his family.

The below photos was my first encounter with the vase while visiting the Christie's New York galleries in mid-March.

Here is the vase's mark da Qing Yongzheng nianzhi (大清雍正年制), 'made during the Yongzheng reign of the Qing Dynasty‘.

And here is the Larson Yongzheng Vase again while I was visiting the Christie's office gallery in late March. (You can see a couple of Imperial goodies in the background display cases).

Christie's stated that no other vase of this form and design was ever recorded. With an estimate of HKD 32-45 million (approximately USD 4.1-5.8 million), the vase realized a price of HKD 37.26 million.

That's it for this edition of my blog! Thank you 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 My next stop is the September edition of New York Asia Week, followed by trips to consultation and appraisal trips to Chicago, Vancouver, Montreal and London.

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