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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Wu

Unprecedented Times: New York Asia Week 2020 and COVID-19

Updated: Apr 17, 2021

Nothing is ordinary these days with the major clampdown of North America and Europe because of the COVID-19 'Corona' Virus.

As I am writing this blog in Toronto, the Canadian/USA border is about to close for the foreseeable future (with exceptions for essential services), many people are working from home, schools are closed, and restaurants, museums and most businesses are shut down indefinitely. Finally, our Canadian healthcare system is preparing for the potential/probable deluge of all their hospitals.

This might go on for a couple of weeks, or even months. All I can say is that this experience is absolutely surreal, and it will take years before the world economy recovers. Millions upon millions of people will be affected, many with their lives.

As many of you know or have been following me on my Instagram, I was down in New York City about ten days ago for work and to visit the March Asia Week events. Asia Week usually marks the beginning of the Spring Asian Art auction season and is always a good indicator of how the market will fare until the end of June. A typical Asia Week will see a minimum of USD 120-150 million in sales.

Asia Week is usually an amazing event with hundreds of visitors from all over the world descending upon NYC. In addition to the dozens of auctions at the international and regional level, there are numerous local and overseas dealers with gallery openings, new Asian-themed exhibitions at museums, and too many booze-filled receptions to count.

This year was the complete opposite. The Asian Art industry already knew by early February that something was amiss when the massive pandemic hit East Asia. After the announcement that visitors from China had to be quarantined for two weeks upon arrival of the USA, the major New York March auction houses Bonhams, Christie's and Sotheby's reluctantly postponed their sales to the week of June 22.

Hong Kong soon followed suit with Sotheby's moving their major April auctions to July, and Art Basel Hong Kong getting cancelled. Everybody in the Asian Art world is now waiting for the situation to calm down. Ideally, we are all hoping that the season will finally start with the London sales in mid-May. Realistically, nobody knows what will happen.

Yet I was still in New York from the 11th to 15th of March. Asia Week was still proceeding as scheduled, but on a much smaller level. At that time, most of the museums were beginning to close for an indefinite period and many of the Asian Art dealer galleries became 'by appointment only'. I was still hoping I could attend the 'highlight' previews at the major auction houses.

I'm not going to dwell into the politics surrounding the pandemic during my time in New York, but all I can really say is that the situation deteriorated quickly. At the beginning of my week, people were asked to be attentive of their surroundings. Just a couple of days later after the news reports explaining the severity of the situation, the mood rapidly shifted to confusion, trepidation and panic.

Nonetheless, this is an Asian art blog and I will go through some of the highlights I saw while I was down in NYC. This is refreshing for me as well - to just showcase some of the objects I liked and want to share with my readers - especially since I was really one of the few people who actually ventured into the previews. Many of these objects haven't been shown to the public yet.

My main objective this time around was to visit the scaled-down Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonhams previews from March 13 to at least March 17. I didn't actually make it to Christie's though - they were only opened for one day before they shut down all their global offices for at least two weeks. The other auction houses ended their previews after the weekend.

In addition to the big sale 'Important Chinese Art' auction, Sotheby's had two other themed sales involving Kangxi porcelain and Chinese jades. When I was there, the galleries were eerily empty expect for the specialists, security team and art handlers.

Empty Kangxi Porcelain Gallery at Sotheby's NYC

1. Gallery for 'Kangxi Porcelain: A Private Collection', now rescheduled for 23 June 2020.

Empty Junkunc Jade Gallery at Sotheby's NYC

2. Gallery for 'Junkunc: Chinese Jade Carvings', now rescheduled for 23 June 2020.

3. The top piece at Sotheby's New York was this exceptionally rare and important gold, silver and glass-embellished bronze vessel, fanghu, from the Warring States Period, 4th/3rd Century BC. There are only three other recorded examples of bronze vases of this form decorated with glass inlays, and this is the only one still in private hands. The estimate is USD 2.5/3.5 million and it is set to sell in their 'Important Chinese Art' auction on 24 June 2020.

3a. Action shot of me very carefully examining this rare bronze vessel with fancy white gloves.

4. The Sotheby's 'Important Chinese Art' auction at Sotheby's also features a group of early bronze Buddhist sculptures from a private collection. Here is one of the star pieces, a gilt-bronze figure of Vairocana from the Liao Dynasty (907-1125) with an estimate of USD 200/300,000. Vairocana is associated with being the 'all-knowing' Buddha.

5. Another early Buddhist figure from the collection is this gilt-bronze seated Buddha from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-524), estimated at USD 200/300,000. Notice the presence of two donor figures incised to the base.

5a. The reverse of this figure contains an inscription dating this object to the second year of the Taihe year, which corresponds to AD 478.

6. In the porcelain section of Sotheby's 'Important Chinese Art' is this exceptional bowl from a private collection out of Washington. This one is titled an extremely rare famille-rose bowl, Yongzheng mark and period (1723-1735).

It doesn't look like much if you look at it from the side - all you really see here are some iron red bats and the bowl's nice profile. Initially you'd be shocked that the bowl's estimate is USD 300/500,000.

6a. However, the interior has a wonderfully painted famille rose 'birthday scene' representing longevity, high rank and good fortune. A young attendant is presenting a peach to the Daoist immortal of longevity Shoulao.

The bat (fortune), deer (high rank) and peach (longevity) all have auspicious meaning in Chinese culture. Typically a bowl with this symbolism would have been given to someone of importance during an important birthday milestone, in hopes that the bowl's virtue will transfer over to the giftee.

6b. The base of the bowl is one of the reasons why the object has such a high value. It features an incredibly rare Yongzheng yuzhi mark (雍正御製) which means that this bowl was made under the imperial order of the Yongzheng Emperor.

The bowl also features an old provenance label stating that it was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong back in the fall of 2001.

There were many more wonderful porcelain pieces I saw at the Sotheby's preview, many of which are part of their upcoming sale titled 'Kangxi Porcelain: A Private Collection'.

'Kangxi Porcelain' will be the third part of this estate collection offered through Sotheby's. The first part was 'Qing Imperial Porcelain: A Private Collection' that sold in Hong Kong, 8 October 2019, for HKD 68.675 million (approximately USD 8.85 million), and it was followed by 'Imperial Porcelain: A Private Collection' that sold in London, 6 November 2019, for GBP 4.71 million (approximately USD 5.487 million).

7. One of my favourite pieces from this collection was this rare and exceptional underglaze-red and famille-verte 'rose' vase with Kangxi mark and of the period (1662-1722).

This vase has an elegant globular form and beautiful rose blooms painted with the copper red enamels. Copper red is one of the most difficult and delicate colours to produce and requires careful adjustments to the kiln temperatures. These roses are juxtaposed with the famille verte enamels forming leaves and stems, which would have required a separate firing. The rare vase's auction estimate is USD 300/400,000.

7a. The base of the vase with the reign mark daqing Kangxi nianzhi (大清康熙年製), made in the year of the Kangxi reign of the Qing Dynasty.

8. Another favourite of mine was a beautiful claire-de-lune-glazed hu-form vase, Kangxi mark and period (1662-1722). This vase has one of the most graceful forms that is based on archaic bronze vessels. The sky blue glaze is seldom seen on Kangxi porcelain and the vase is estimated at USD 200/300,000.

8a. The base of the vase with the reign mark daqing Kangxi nianzhi (大清康熙年製), made in the year of the Kangxi reign of the Qing Dynasty. You can see old labels on the base stating the object was exhibited with the 1948 Oriental Ceramic Society in London and the 1981 Kau Chi Society in Hong Kong.

9. Another extraordinary piece from the collection is this rare celadon celadon-glazed 'dragon' amphora vase, Kangxi mark and period (1662-1722). It contains the design of a raised dragon soaring over ocean waves. This vase has an estimate of USD 300/500,000.

9a. The base of the vase with the reign mark daqing Kangxi nianzhi (大清康熙年製), made in the year of the Kangxi reign of the Qing Dynasty.

Over in the jade section of the Sotheby's preview was a themed collection from the estate of Hungarian-born, Chicago-based Stephen Junkunc III (d. 1978). Junkunc owned a business that manufactured aviation parts, and was one of the most important Chinese Art collectors in North America during the mid 20th Century. He amassed a collection of over 2000 objects that were carefully purchased from major dealers during his time.

Sotheby's have been offering sections of his estate over the past two years that included Buddhist sculptures, archaic jades and early metalware. This time, they will be selling 61 jade carvings mostly from the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties.

10. The cover lot of the 'Junkunc: Chinese Jade Carvings' sale is this incredible pale green and russet jade 'Daoist Immortals' group from the Kangxi/Yongzheng Period (early 18th Century). The carving is magnificent! Not just on the details and expressions on the figures, but the rocky landscape as well. It contains two pairs of figure that can be possibly identified as the hehe erxian, the Daoist the gods of harmony and union. The auction estimate for this group is USD 100/150,000.

11. Another incredibly jade carving from the Junkunc collection is this celadon and russet jade horse head dated to the Han to Six Dynasties (2nd century BC to 4th Century AD). Despite its small size, the form is extremely rare and historically important with few similar published examples. It probably would have been part of a larger horse figure. The estimate is USD 600/800,000.

12. And one of my personal favourites from the Junkunc collection is this white jade 'guardian' plaque from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). This figure was probably a celestial king and would have been sewn onto a piece of clothing. He is very dynamic in his stance and musculature, and features a fierce (or grumpy) expression. The estimate for this figure is USD 50/70,000.

13. There were also highlights on display from Sotheby's sale of 'Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art', now rescheduled for 22 June 2020. This auction is highlighted by this Nepalese gilt copper figure of Avalokiteshvara from the 9th/10th Century.

This sculpture is an exceptionally early depiction of the Buddhist deity of compassion, and it is extremely rare to find one this large (height 10.5 inches) survive for over 1000 years. The estimate is USD 300/500,000.

Over at Bonhams on Madison Ave, I was able to view some of their upcoming Himalayan, Chinese and Japanese highlights too.

14. One of their highlight pieces in their sale of 'Indian Himalayan & Southeast Asia Art' on 23 June 2020 is this gilt copper alloy figure of Shadakshari Lokeshvara, from the Khasa Malla Kingdom, circa 1330-1350. Shadakshari is a form of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion.

Along with the inscription and stylistic features, this figure can be appropriated to the lost Khasa Malla Kingdom of West Nepal from the 11th to 14th Century. This incredible sculpture has an estimate of USD 200/300,000.

15. One of the figural grouping I really liked at Bonhams was this Chinese gilt copper alloy figure of Chitipati, from the 18th Century. The skeletons are male and female guardians who help the viewer evoke a better awareness of death. They are often shown in the 'eternal dance' in facetious poses. Both of them hold skull cups filled with human brain! This grouping is estimated at USD 8,000/12,000.

16. In the Bonhams upcoming 'Fine Chinese Work of Art and Paintings' sale is this lovely pink ground bowl with Yongzheng mark and period (1723-1735). Yongzheng period porcelain is known for their outstanding monochrome glazes. Typical monochromes glazes include iron red, sacrificial blue and pure white. The more rare colours are lime green, lemon yellow and pink. The bowl's auction estimate is USD 30/50,000.

16a. The base of the bowl with the reign mark daqing Yongzheng nianzhi (大清雍正年製), made in the year of the Yongzheng reign of the Qing Dynasty.

17. Finally at Bonhams in their upcoming 'Japanese Art' sale on 25 June 2020 is 'The Great Wave Off Kangawa' (c. 1830) by Japanese woodblock print master Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).

'The Great Wave' is the most iconic scene from Hokusai's revered series 'Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji'. In each image, the artist depicts the sacred mountain from a different perspective.

This is perhaps the most iconic woodblock print in the world right now, and even if you don't know anything about Hokusai or Japanese Art, you would have encountered 'The Great Wave' numerous times in your life. It is extremely popular on greeting cards, calendars, t-shits and whatever paraphernalia you can think of.

This particular 'Great Wave' was sourced from a private Toronto family that has held onto it for over 50 years. It was once owned by their great uncle Frank Gair Macomber (1849-1941) who was in the insurance business during the first half of the 20th Century. Macomber was also a major art collector and philanthropist, and he gifted many objects to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Macomber's 'The Great Wave' is the second example of this print I saw at Bonhams New York in the past six months. I briefly discussed the previous one in an earlier blog - with an estimate of USD 200/300,000, it ended up selling for USD 237,575. This current example is estimated at USD 40/60,000.

17a. And here I am examining the 'The Great Wave'. I clearly wasn't wearing gloves, but you can see I was only touching the paper folder!

That's it for this edition of my blog. If you have any questions or suggestions, please send me an email.

Hope everyone is staying safe and healthy during these uncertain times, and hopefully life will start getting back to normal in the next couple of weeks/months. My upcoming business trips for the rest of March and April have been postponed so I'll probably be in Toronto until the middle of May.

My latest 'Chinese Works of Art and Paintings Auction Highlights' in Orientations Magazine just got published too so I will be putting together a quick write-up about it in the coming days.



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