Auctions of Chinese antiques raised a record 57.4 million pounds ($92 million) in London this week even as credit-squeezed Asian bidders became choosier about what they wanted to buy.
Sotheby’s, Christie’s International and Bonhams offered a bumper crop of 1,695 Chinese lots at their main salesrooms as part of the 14th annual Asian Art in London event. While rarities such as a Qianlong-era Imperial vase sold for 9 million pounds, 44 percent of the material was rejected. The equivalent sales last November raised 37.4 million pounds.
The international trade in Chinese art is worth at least $10 billion a year, according to Bloomberg calculations. Record quantities of material are being offered at a time when Asian buyers have become more discriminating. They’re also finding it more difficult to borrow money for purchases, said dealers.
“The market has been very hot for the last four years,” John Berwald, one of 47 dealers exhibiting at Asian Art in London, said in an interview. “Everyone wants part of the Chinese auction phenomenon. A cooling off probably isn’t a bad thing. The market for the best things is still good.”
During the first week of the event that ends on Nov. 12, Chinese buyers snapped up all but two of the 14 pieces from a collection of 17th-century huanghuali wood furniture exhibited by Mayfair dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi. The collection had been acquired in the 1990s and prices ranged from $60,000 to more than $1 million, said the gallery.
Berwald sold a rare Han dynasty terracotta of a long-sleeved dancer to a U.S. collector for a price between 200,000 pounds and 300,000 pounds. He was one of several London gallerists who said that Asian clients were complaining about tightened credit controls.
China’s central bank has raised benchmark interest rates three times this year, making it more difficult for local antiques dealers to borrow money.
Still, that didn’t stop dozens of Chinese dealers from flying to the U.K. and bidding at this week’s London sales for pieces with an old European provenance.
The pick of the auctions was Bonhams’s 694-lot offering on Nov. 10, where a Qianlong “famille rose” vase fell to an Asian telephone buyer for more than 10 times the upper estimate of 800,000 pounds. The highly decorative piece, painted with chrysanthemum blossoms, had been bought by the late J.N. Robertson, a former Jardine Matheson employee, in Hong Kong in the 1920s.
“This was a piece that was definitely to the taste of today’s market,” said Ruben Lien of the New York-based dealership Littleton & Hennessy. “It was a good price, though it might have made more earlier in the year. The economy is making things a little more difficult.”
Bonhams’s auction, which at times was packed with a crowd of more than 50 Asian bidders, raised a record 23.9 million pounds with fees, more than double its upper estimate. The selling rate of 61 percent was the highest of the three houses, reflecting a larger proportion of privately entered pieces with reasonable estimates, said dealers.
Highly decorative 18th-century porcelain with Imperial associations inspired most of the week’s surprise auction prices.
A European-style “famille rose” candlestick sold to an Asian collector for 1.3 million pounds at Christie’s on Nov. 8. The brilliantly colored Yongzheng-period piece had been valued at just 40,000 pounds to 60,000 pounds and was thought to have been made for the Summer Palace, Beijing, said dealers.
A similarly dated Imperial dish painted with a river landscape had been estimated at 20,000 pounds to 30,000 pounds in Sotheby’s Nov. 9 catalog. Provenanced to the early-20th-century U.K. collection of S.D. Winkworth, this sold to another Asian bidder for a top price of 1 million pounds.
Sotheby’s found buyers for just 48 percent of its 557 lots. Among the most prominent failures was an 18th-century Doucai “Lotus and Bats” jar and cover that had been discovered on the floor of a dining room in Shropshire, in the English Midlands. No one was prepared to pay the guide price of 300,000 pounds to 500,000 pounds.
“It was over-valued,” the London-based dealer Richard Marchant said. “The lid of the vase was damaged and the neck was cracked. It should have been estimated at 100,000 pounds to 200,000 pounds. Buyers are much more educated than they were three years ago.”
Pieces entered by dealers hoping for 2008-style bidding made up a high proportion of the failed lots at these London sales, said Berwald.
“These auctions were a bit of a hiccup,” he said. “The market is changing.”
(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)