Wealthy Chinese buyers competing for their cultural heritage pushed New York’s week of Asian art to a record, topped by a delicate pear-shaped Chinese vase, estimated to fetch just $800 to $1,200.
The lot soared to $18 million, the most expensive in a dozen Asian Week auctions at Sotheby’s (BID) and Christie’s International. Together, the auction houses took in a record $202 million, 56 percent above the previous high in 2007.
Sotheby’s described the modestly-estimated vase, decorated with birds and peonies, as of “probably Republican period” (early 20th-century). Yet it had a Qianlong seal and anything of that 1736-1795 era commands higher prices, said dealers.
“It’s outstanding if it’s genuine,” said Giuseppe Eskenazi, one of the leading dealers in Chinese art.
China overtook the U.S. as the world’s biggest auction market for fine art in 2010, according to research company Artprice, benefiting from the support of its government. Last week’s sales attracted collectors from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“There seems to be an extraordinary amount of cash out there,” Andrew Kahane, a New York dealer specializing in Chinese art, said. “Chinese buyers want to be seen spending a lot of money. They want to be seen setting world records. Whatever was collected by Emperor Qianlong, they want. He was like the Queen Victoria of China.”
Christie’s $117 million sales were led by a carved, celadon-glazed Qianlong vase that fetched $7.9 million, almost twice its high presale estimate of $4 million. The price was an auction record for Qing-dynasty monochrome porcelain. The prices include buyers’ premium; the estimates do not.
Among Sotheby’s $85 million sales, an Indian canopy decorated with at least 500,000 pearls and 200 diamonds took in $2.3 million, though this fell below the expected range of $3 million to $5 million.
The demand for Qianlong-era artworks was also shown on March 26 when a scroll painting sold in France for 22.1 million euros ($31 million). In November, a Qianlong vase fetched 51.6 million pounds (then $83.2 million) at a Bainbridges sale on the outskirts of London.
“If you project three to five years from now, it’s not hard to imagine that Chinese classical art would be on par with such major auction categories as Impressionist and Modern art,” Larry Warsh, a New York-based collector of Chinese contemporary art, said in an interview. “Don’t underestimate Chinese collectors, the building of their wealth and their passion to collect.”
(Katya Kazakina is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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