Yu Zhiding's "Happiness through Chan Practice" earned $3.4 million on the block at Christie's, the highest price ever paid for a Classical Chinese painting at auction in the U.S.
NEW YORK— Enthusiastic bidding for works at Sotheby’s and Christie’s Chinese art auctions last week pushed many lots to extraordinarily high prices and suggested that that market’s recent surge, led by an ascendant collecting class in China, has yet to run out of momentum. While that is certainly good news for auction houses and sellers, it means that other collectors who had grown accustomed to certain price levels — particularly for paintings, Qing Dynasty jades, zitan furniture, and Imperial porcelain — can expect to have still more difficulty competing in the auction room.
At Sotheby’s two-session sale on March 23, the auction house credited Asian collectors with winning most of the highest–priced lots, many of those works selling for significant multiples of their presale estimates. The top lot, Bada Shanren’s 17th-century ink on paper hanging scroll, Two Mynas on a Rock, sold for $2,994,500 — more than four times its $600,000 high estimate, and a record price for a classical Chinese painting at a U.S. auction. That record was then broken two days when a buyer snatched up a handscroll by Yu Zhiding for $3,442,500 at Christie’s.
Bada Shanren's "Two Myna on a Rock" sold for nearly $3 million at Sotheby's, then held its all-time record for a Classical Chinese painting bought at a U.S. auction for a mere two days.
In total, the auction house brought in $14,400,063 from the sales, well above expectations of $6–8 million. Of the 245 lots offered 188 found buyers, making for sell-through rates of 76.7 percent by lot and 93.3 percent by value. Other highlights included another calligraphic hanging scroll by Bada Shanren that fetched $482,500, beating an estimate of $100,000-150,000, and a Qing Dynasty Imperial zitan wood stand and base that sold for $602,500 (est. $180–250,000).
A calligraphic hanging scroll by Bada Shanren beat its $100–150,000 pre-sale estimate, climbing to $482,500 in bidding at Sotheby's.
Christie’s two-day marathon of sales on March 25 and 26th netted $40 million in total, the highest sum ever recorded for Chinese art sales at Christie’s New York.
The series began with a 158-piece single-owner auction of objects from the Robert H. Blumenfield Collection, which included remarkable pieces carved from bone, rhinoceros horn, and ivory, as well as ceramics and paintings. Given its reputation as a prime example of "Chinese taste," which favors work prized by Qing emperors, experts predicted that it would do well, but it exceeded even the loftiest expectations by bringing in $13,866,500 on an estimate of $3,934,300-5,439,000.
The Blumenfield Collection was especially strong in rhinoceros-horn cups, so it was no surprise that six were among the top-ten lots sold, ranging in price from $266,500 to $578,500. A rare engraved 18th-century ivory bowl set a U.S. auction record for an ivory carving when it sold for $842,500, a great deal higher than its $30–50,000 estimate. Two Chinese buyers bidding anonymously over the telephone, dominated the session.
Later Christie’s auctioned 82 lots from the collections of Arthur M. Sackler, the late billionaire philanthropist and museum donor who made his fortune importing tranquilizer drugs to the U.S. Sackler works had performed extremely well at two previous auctions at Christie’s, and they did so again easily, netting $4 million at three times the presale estimate.
The top lot was a rare large limestone figure of a kneeling Bodhisattva, which sold to an American collector for $914,500 (est. $300–500,000). According to Christie’s, the buyer was a novice collector. Fierce competition also pushed several other lots beyond their estimates. A small yellow-green jade bangle from the Warring States Period (5th century B.C.) soared to $266,500, easily trouncing its modest $7–9,000 bracket. A bronze tripod steamer from the late Shang or early Western Zhou Dynasty (12th-11th century B.C.) made $146,500, handily defeating its $10–15,000 estimate, and a small parcel-gilt-decorated bronze bowl from the early Western Han Dynasty (3rd century B.C.) went for $86,500 (est. $6–8,000). All three of those lots went to Chinese buyers.
The following day, Christie’s two various-owner sessions of Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art ran from 10 a.m. to just after 6 p.m. with only one half-hour break. But the lengthy proceedings ended up paying off for the house, which netted $22,605,250 in total. The sale of a large white jade figure of Buddha from the 18th or 19th century, for instance, sent a burst of electricity into the room. When the hammer fell at $2,322,500 (est. $150–200,000), with the work going to a telephone bidder, the crowd broke into applause.
Other white jade pieces also sold well, most notably a Qianlong Period peach-form brush washer that brought $1,022,500 (est. $250–350,000) and an 18th- or 19th-century ruji that sold for $542,500 (est. $25–35,000). An Imperial gilt decorated zitan and hardwood throne chair that had not been on the market since 1977 sold for $1,022,500 (est. $200–300,000). The buyers of nine of the top ten lots from the two sales were, once again, Chinese.
At Christie’s, the central lot of the ceramics section, a teadust-glazed globular vase, with a Yongzheng six-character seal mark was bought-in — understandably — after the auctioneer announced that the catalogue description should read “possibly of the period” rather than “of the period.” Despite the feverish market, some lots did go ungavelled. At Sotheby’s, an Imperial tribute ivory and tortoiseshell fan from the Qing Dynasty (est. $100,000-150,000) failed to find a buyer, as did a 17th-century Qing Dynasty rhinoceros horn libation cup (est. $80–120,000). The biggest disappointment was in the case of the highest–estimated lot of the week's Chinese auctions, a Western Han Dynasty gold “winged” cup from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection (est. $800,000-$1 million), that sank at Christie's without a bid. Even in the most bullish of markets, collectors seemed to accept the general feeling that the work was just too good to be true.
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