Sotheby's puts Chinese treasures on the block

Updated: 2014-03-19 11:07

By Zhang Yuwei in New York (China Daily USA)

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Sotheby's auction room on the Upper East Side in New York was packed with collectors and bidders - about 80 percent of them Chinese - on Tuesday morning when Henry Howard-Sneyd, the auction house's vice-chairman of Asian Art and North America, put a host of Chinese items on the block.

The Chinese collectors - no strangers to Sotheby's - followed closely as Howard-Sneyd announced bids in both English and Mandarin.

Between Tuesday and Wednesday, Sotheby's presented the bi-annual Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art auction as part of Asia Week New York. The sale was particularly focused on property from private collections of more than 50 collectors from the US, Asia and Europe.

Wang Tao, senior vice-president and department head of Chinese Works of Art at Sotheby's, said that compared with the last few years - where Chinese buyers came mostly to observe - it has been particularly "busy" on the auction floor this week with more of them participating.

"You can clearly see their enthusiasm," said Wang, adding that there were also more people from the Chinese mainland this year.

"Ancient Chinese bronzes are most popular this year," Wang said of the trend among Chinese collectors.

A Chinese bronze owl Hu with the highest estimated value - between $4 million and $6 million - was still up for sale after a Chinese bidder offered $3.7 million, the highest during that session.

Wang said the piece would be kept until a price closer to the lowest estimated price (of $4 million) came up.

"At the moment people still come in with different offers, so we need to wait until the end of the week (when Asia Week ends) to see what kind of offers come in," Wang said.

"The seller may prefer to keep it if the price isn't right," he added.

"I was surprised by that," said Erica Mason, an American collector. "I think the reserve price is too high but then you have to start from somewhere."

Wang, however, said the piece is a unique one with a great history, but Chinese collectors are still going through a "learning curve" of understanding different categories, which is why the value of it was underestimated during the bid.

"You need a lot of understanding to appreciate this piece," Wang added.

The piece, which was once on display at the British Museum, has been auctioned twice at Sotheby's, the first time in 1945 for more than $1,000 pounds ($1,650 back then). "So the current price is actually quite low," Wang said.

If a porcelain item from the Emperor Qianlong period (18th century) sold at a similar price back then, it could go for up to $10 million today, he explained.

"Chinese bronzes are a new field for Chinese collectors so they are not so sophisticated about them," Wang said.

Surprisingly, another bronze item, a wine vessel from the late Shang Dynasty (13th-11th century BC) that carried an estimated price between $400,000 and $600,000, sold for $2 million to a Chinese bidder on Tuesday.

Wang said the items that are easiest for Chinese collectors to connect with are porcelains, which most Chinese collectors have been educated about for the past 20 years.

Among the Chinese collectors, Xu Jun, a Chinese art dealer from Shanghai, was quietly sitting in the lobby as the morning session - when most bronze items were auctioned - was going on. "I am here just to see what they have for the ceramics and jade items at the later session," Xu said.

 Sotheby's puts Chinese treasures on the block

Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby's vice-chairman of Asian Art and North America, leads an auction on Tuesday morning, where a number of Chinese items were on the block. Bidding on the bronze owl-headed wine vessel (shown in photo) reached $3.7 million - below the lowest estimated price of $4 million. Zhang Yuwei / China Daily

(China Daily USA 03/19/2014 page1)