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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Wu

USD $2.5 Million for a (small) Song Dynasty Vase at Asia Week New York 2023!

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

This past Asia Week in New York saw strong prices across the board for Chinese works of art including Chinese porcelain and ceramics, jade carvings and furniture. There was also a resurgent interest for gilt-copper alloy (aka gilt bronze) sculptures from the Himalayan region.


Initially many Asian art insiders feared that the market would slow down because of the global economic situation with its rising interest rates, but the Asian art market has shown its resilience and has proved to be a stable alternative to stocks and real estate.


As many of you know, Asia Week New York takes place every September and March, and despite designated as 'a week' it actually takes place over an approximately 15-day period. Events include exhibition openings at galleries and museums, auction house previews, and numerous receptions and after-parties with a glass of wine (or three).


I have been attending Asia Week New York for about the past 16 years and it never really gets old. In addition to visiting all the auction previews where I can examine the highlight objects at the major houses Bonhams, Christie's and Sotheby's, it's also a great opportunity to see Asian art colleagues and friends from all around the world.


This Spring season featured many amazing collections including the Cadle Family Collection at Sotheby's and the collection of esteemed Chinese art dealer J. J. Lally at Christie's. In this blog, I selected a few objects across the various auctions, in particular items that surpassed the USD 1 million mark.


Sotheby's Cadle Collection Red Glazed Xuande Bowl

Image 1a. The Cadle Family Collection of Chinese Monochromes' at Sotheby's featured mostly monochrome porcelain wares from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. They were all collected through the 1980's under the guidance of J. J. Lally. Many of the objects featured additional significant provenance from historically esteemed collectors of Chinese art.


One of the most talked about pieces from the Cadle Collection titled was this extremely rare sacrificial-red glazed bowl from the Xuande reign (1426-1435). It featured a conservative estimate of USD 400/600,000 and ended up realizing USD 1.875 million (approximately CAD 2.48 million)!


This small bowl is extremely rare because of its scarcity and the fact that very few monochrome wares from the Xuande period still exist and belong in private hands. The glaze is extremely attractive and can be described as ruby or even crushed strawberries.


In addition, the bowl once belonged to the famous Hong Kong collector and shipping magnate T.Y. Chao (1912-1999).


Reign Mark for Sotheby's Cadle Collection Red Glazed Xuande Bowl

Image 1b. A view of the sacrificial-red bowl's base with its reign mark da Ming Xuande nianzhi 大明宣德年制 (made during the Xuande reign of the great Ming Dynasty).


Sotheby's Cadle Collection Yongzheng Robin's Egg Censer

Image 2a. Another Chinese monochrome porcelain ware I really liked from the Cadle Collection was the robin's egg-glazed censer with a Yongzheng mark and of the period (1723-1735).


The size is large relatively to other porcelain censers, and the surface is covered in a pristine robin's egg glaze of a rich light blue ground with deep purple splashes throughout.


This censer once belonged to the important Shanghai-Swiss dealer Edward T. Chow (1910-1980), and more recently Shanghai-Hong Kong dealer Robert Chang. Just being able to examine this censer was quite a treat!


Again, the estimate was quite modest at USD 400/600,000, but after much bidding, it realized USD 1.143 million (approximately CAD 1.89 million).


Reign Mark for Sotheby's Cadle Collection Yongzheng Robin's Egg Censer

Image 2b. Here's the base of the robin's egg censer with its reign mark da Qing Yongzheng nianzhi 大清雍正年制 (made during the Yongzheng reign of the great Qing Dynasty).


Christie's New York J. J. Lally Southern Song Guan Vase

Image 3a. Over at Christie's, one of their multiple Asian art sales contained a selection of highlight pieces from 'J. J. Lally & Co.'.


For over 40 years, the now retired J. J. Lally was one of the most important dealers of Chinese art in the USA, and his gallery on Madison Avenue was an institution for the Chinese art community. His annual exhibition catalogues have also become a much sought-after collector's item for those interested in Chinese art and completist of Chinese art libraries.


Of the 138 items offered for sale, which included archaic bronzes and jades, Ming and Qing porcelain, Song ceramics, Buddhist sculpture and Tang Dynasty silverware, one of the most striking pieces was this Guan bottle vase from the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279).


This vase was estimated at USD 700/900,000 and is one of the best examples of a Song ceramic I have handled since the pandemic started. Known as one of the Five Great Kilns of the Song Dynasty, Guan wares are known for their sturdy potting, light bluish celadon tone, and even crackles. These pieces are often imitated (especially during the 20th and 21st centuries), but the difference in examining a true example is a whole other level.


The small vase also had the honour of being highly published throughout the 20th Century and once beloved in the collection of Swedish collector Dr. Carl Kempe (1884-1967).


As a result, the Guan vase's rarity and multiple layers of provenance significantly aided the confidence for its bidders, and it ended up selling for an incredible USD 2.58 million (approximately CAD 3.4 million).


Base for Christie's New York J. J. Lally Southern Song Guan Vase

Image 3b. A view of the Guan jar's base where you can see the old Dr. Carl Kempe collection/inventory sticker. Also note the foot rim which is very different from the modern examples I routinely view.


There is a certain beauty to Song Dynasty ceramics where you can actually see the individualism and imperfections of these pieces.


Christie's New York J. J. Lally Ming Dynasty Fahua Dragon Jar

Image 4a. Another object I liked from the sale of J. J. Lally at Christie's was this fahua 'dragon' jar from the Chenghua to Hongzhi Period (late 15th Century) of the mid Ming Dynasty.


Fahua 法華 is a type of decorative technique used on Chinese stoneware pieces particularly during the Ming Dynasty. Its name literally translates to 'decorative boundary' and involves filling in raised slip designs on porcelain with colors like purple, turquoise and green, so that they imitate cloisonné enamel metal wares.


This particular example has the design of bold dragons throughout and would have been made for the Ming Dynasty court. I particularly liked the large dragons and the very well-made raised decoration of the lotus on the shoulder and the crashing waves along the base.


This outstanding jar was estimated at USD 200/300,000 and sold for nearly eight times more at USD 1.5 million (approximately CAD 1.98 million).


Christie's New York J. J. Lally Ming Dynasty Fahua Dragon Jar

Image 4b. Another view of one of the fierce dragons on the side of the fahua jar.


Base for Christie's New York J. J. Lally Ming Dynasty Fahua Dragon Jar

Image 4c. A view of the fahua jar's base and a unique 'swirl' that the potter added to give the object more individualilty.


Anthony Wu and Christie's New York Huanghuali Ming Dynasty Folding Chair

Image 5. At Christie's main sale of 'Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art' was this outstanding huanghuali folding chair from the 17th Century. (Note: In the photo I am pretending to showcase this chair to an imaginary audience).


Huanghuali 黃花梨 translates to yellow pear wood and is a now-extinct tropical rosewood found in Hainan island of southern China. They are exceedingly slow-growing, but when harvested, the wood has an immaculate graining and a honey coloured tone.


From the late Ming Dynasty to the late Qing Dynasty, huanghuali wood was used to produce domestic furniture for wealthy families and even members of the imperial class. Furniture carved from this material include beds, cabinets, chairs, stools, tables, and lamp stands.


Huanghuali folding chairs from the 17th Century are considered some of the rarest examples. They normally don't survive for over 400 years since they are made from so many separate individual parts and have to be perfectly fitted. The rounded crestrail itself would have required a lot of time and precision to assemble.


Of the few examples that still exist, the majority of these huanghuali folding chairs can be found in museums around the world (Note: the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has its own example!).


Hence, when these chairs appear at auction, they generally feature a very high auction estimate. This particular example was estimated at USD 2/3 million, and due to its desirability and rarity, ended up realizing USD 2.8 million (approximately CAD 3.7 million).  


Sotheby's New York Nyingjei Lam Tibetan Silver and Gilt Milarepa

Image 6a. Besides Chinese art, another category that has been doing well is Himalayan art. This category features objects from Tibet, Nepal, Kashmir, India and Pakistan. The more popular pieces are metal and stone sculptures, and paintings containing Buddhist deities.


At Sotheby's, one of he most exquisite figures I came across is the Nyingjei Lam parcel-gilt silver and gilt-copper figure of Milarepa. It was crafted in the 15th Century in Tibet and is one of the most-recorded figures to ever appear in auction. The figure was exhibited at the Rubin Museum in New York, the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford , the Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Washington, and the University and Art Gallery at the University of Hong Kong.


It came from the Nyingjei Lam Collection out of the United Kingdom, and its name in Sanskrit means 'Path to Compassion'. They have been selling many of their Himalayan art pieces over the years with the proceeds going towards education in Asia.


This gilt-copper figure depicts Milarepa, a historical Buddhist saint who lived from 1040-1123. He was a poet and singer who composed over 100,000 songs. Here, Milarepa is realistically rendered sitting on an antelope skin with silver and gilding throughout. He is holding onto an alms bowl and his left arm is raised to his ear with mouth slightly open, suggesting he is singing a traditional song.


The base of this Milarepa figure is incised in Sanskrit with auspicious prayers, and the bottom is inscribed with a dedication. This important figure was estimated at USD 1.5/1.8 million and ended up selling for USD 2.117 million (approximately CAD 2.8 million).


Reverse of Sotheby's New York Nyingjei Lam Tibetan Silver and Gilt Milarepa

Image 6b. The reverse of the Milarepa figure where you can see the continuation of the Buddhist poem.


Base of Sotheby's New York Nyingjei Lam Tibetan Silver and Gilt Milarepa

Image 6c. The base of the Milarepa with a double vajra (lightning bolt) and dedication:


'Homage to the venerable Mila Zhepei Dorje! May my kind mother Sonam Zemo attain Buddhahood!’


Bonhams New York Tibet Malla Period Seated Tara

Image 7a. And finally at Bonhams auction house is another masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture. This gilt-copper figure of Tara is from the Early Malla Period of Tibet (early 14th Century), and with a height of 34.5 cm, is particularly large.


Tara is an important female deity in the Buddhist pantheon and especially popular amongst women of all age. Tara is a protector, and a provider of good health and longevity.


This figure came from the Zimmerman Family Collection of Himalayan Art and was initially acquired in the 1960's. The sculpture has been extensively published and exhibited during the 1990's in the USA, Australia and Europe.


Tara is always depicted as a youthful female about to reach womanhood, and this figure with its details and naturalism clearly shows the grace and elegance that personifies her.


The Tara figure was estimated at USD 600/800,000 and ended up realizing USD 1.033 million (approximately CAD 1.37 million).


Reverse of Bonhams New York Tibet Malla Period Seated Tara

Image 7b. Here is the reverse view of the Tara figure. It is a little bit on the plain side, but with a lot of these sculptures, especially larger examples, they would have been placed on an altar where there are fewer opportunities to view the reverse.


Thank you once again for reading this blog and hope write more in the coming months. My travel schedule is quite hectic now as I have trips planned until the end of June.


I am currently in Vancouver putting the final touches on my next Heffel Asian art online auction that runs from April 6th to 26th. Next I will be in Minneapolis and Chicago in early May. And finally I will be going on a major trip to Europe to visit London and the Arts d'Asie sales in Paris mid-June.


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