Asian Battle for Jade Pushes London Auctions to $30.1 Million

Ming Dynasty
A Ming Dynasty green enamel-decorated bottle. The bottle dates from the early 15th century. Source: Christie's Images via Bloomberg

A collection of jades more than doubled its estimate as demand from Asian buyers in the salesroom helped raise 20.7 million pounds ($30.1 million) at London’s May auctions of Chinese ceramics and artworks.

The group of 35 carvings, from a total of 66 offered at Bonhams on May 13, were entered from the estate of an unidentified English collector of white jade. All the lots in the collection sold, totaling 2.3 million pounds against a presale valuation of 1 million pounds. The top price was 580,000 pounds, paid for an 18th-century vase and cover carved with a relief of bats, that had a low estimate of 30,000 pounds.

“These are pieces which are comparable or identical to pieces that are housed in the Palace Museum, Beijing,” Colin Sheaf, Bonhams’s director of Asian art, said after the sale. “Hence the excitement and enthusiasm in the auction room.”

Bonhams’s London salesroom, like Christie’s International’s and Sotheby’s during in the week, was crowded with Asian traders. Newly rich Chinese are keen to acquire high quality objects of their heritage, especially when they are imperial items from established Western collections, dealers say.

At one point in Bonhams’s sale of the jade collection, a woman shouted “One hundred thousand!”, when the bidding on an 18th-century white jade box in the form of a magpie had reached just 30,000 pounds, said Sheaf in an e-mail. The piece went on to sell for 300,000 pounds.

Competitive Buying

“The Chinese like to buy at auction,” said the London- based dealer Ben Janssens in an interview. “They enjoy the competitive element.”

Despite no individual lot selling for more than 1 million pounds, the three auction houses all exceeded their presale estimates and the totals at the equivalent sales last year.

“Compared to six months ago, when perhaps individual objects were representing a large proportion of a sale total, the results now show renewed buoyancy across all areas,” Robert Bradlow, Sotheby’s London-based director of Chinese ceramics and works of art, said in an e-mail.

Sotheby’s 223-lot auction on May 12 raised 7.2 million pounds, with 74 percent of the material successful. Last year, the event took 3.9 million pounds.

A crackle-glazed Yuan Dynasty “Ge” brush washer proved to be the most expensive buy of the week when it sold to a Chinese dealer for 993,250 pounds. Sotheby’s said it had expected the piece, entered from a Japanese collection, to fetch between 180,000 pounds and 220,000 pounds.

Asian Bidders

At least six out of the 10 most expensive pieces at Sotheby’s were bought by Asian bidders, said the New York-based auction house. The proportion had risen to eight out of 10 the previous day at Christie’s, which achieved a total of 6.9 million pounds, a 500,000-pound increase on May 2009.

Christie’s biggest surprise was the 758,050 pounds paid by an Asian private buyer for a Ming Dynasty green enamel-decorated water bottle. Entered by an English collector, it had been expected to achieve between 100,000 pounds and 150,000 pounds, said the auction house.

Thirty-six percent of Christie’s 283 lots failed to sell. A Kangxi-period Imperial gilt-bronze statue of Amitayus, “The Buddha of Infinite Life,” was among the casualties. It had been expected to fetch as much as 600,000 pounds.

“I did detect a slightly more selective attitude, particularly for works of art and blue and white porcelain,” said Janssens, who attended Christie’s sale.

On May 19, the regional auction company Woolley & Wallis in the cathedral town of Salisbury is offering a pair of 18th-century green jade elephants from the throne room of the Emperor Qianlong. Bidders in the room and on the telephone could be prepared to pay as much as 2 million pounds for these Imperial-related rarities, said dealers.

The Bonhams 456-lot sale raised 6.6 million pounds with 80 percent of the material selling. Its sale last year look 3.2 million pounds.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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