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Record-Breaking Buddhas Buoy Electric Asian Art Sales

Record prices for rare, classical works and continued strength in modern and contemporary art fueled Asia Week sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s from March 17-21.

NEW YORK—Record prices for rare, classical works and continued strength in modern and contemporary art fueled Asia Week sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s from March 17-21.

Christie’s total for all its Asian sales was just above $80 million—up sharply from $39.56 million a year ago and a record Asia Week total for the house. Tina Zonars, Christie’s director for Chinese works of art, said the $26.3 million total for the three Chinese sales alone “set a record for the highest series of Chinese works-of-art sales” for the auction house in New York.

Sotheby’s held a smaller series of sales, attaining a total of $46.4 million, down from $89.76 million last year. The house demonstrated particular strength in its sale of contemporary works from China, Korea and Japan.

Despite the vibrancy of the sales, overall volume dipped slightly, to $126.4 million from $129.3 million a year-ago March. Sotheby’s sales were considerably smaller this time around, while Christie’s totals more than doubled.

The highest price of the week was the $14.4 million given at Christie’s for a wooden Buddha from 12th-century Japan—more than seven times its high estimate of $2 million. Attributed to the renowned carver Unkei (d. 1223), who lived during the Kamakura period (1190s), the Buddha had been sold by a provincial Japanese art dealer in 2000; it attracted wide attention in Japan when exhibited at the Tokyo National Museum in 2004. The final price set both a world auction record for a Japanese artwork and a record for Asian art at auction in New York.

Christie’s listed the buyer of the Buddha as Mitsukoshi Co. Ltd., the Tokyo-based department store chain. The work was acquired for a Buddhist temple in suburban Tokyo, Shinnyo-en. The temple reportedly raised the purchase price through donations in order to prevent the work from going to foreign owners.

Katsura Yamaguchi, Christie’s international director for Japanese and Korean art, told ARTnewsletter that interest in the piece had come from around the world. Overall, the March 18 Japanese and Korean art sale at Christie’s attained $20.9 million, with 70 percent of the lots selling through. A record $825,000 also was set for the 20th-century Korean artist Kim Whanki (1913-74), whose untitled oil painting of a porcelain jar and a plum tree had been estimated at $180,000/220,000.

Christie’s saw stunning prices for classical Indian and Southeast Asian works as well. Chief of these was the $5 million given for a sandstone standing Buddha from Sarnath in northern India, the site of a stupa (or dome-shaped structure serving as a Buddhist shrine) commemorating the first teachings of the historical Buddha. The work, dated from 545 A.D., during the Gupta dynasty, had been in a European collection and was estimated at $600,000/800,000. The final price, paid by an unknown buyer, was a record for Indian sculpture.

A record also was set, at $2.2 million (estimate: $150,000/250,000), for Indian paintings with the sale of a miniature work, Musicians Playing a Raga for Balwant Dev Singh During the Rainy Season, by Nainsukh, a celebrated 18th-century painter in the Pahari style. The picture had been in the collection of early Indian industrialist Sir Dorab J. Tata; it was sold at Sotheby’s London in 1931 before passing into a Japanese collection.

Christie’s also saw a record set for Khmer sculpture with the $2.1 million paid for a large sandstone standing figure of the Hindu goddess Uma (estimate: $1/1.5 million), which had been in the collection of Alice M. Kaplan.

A record for Tibetan painting was reached when a circa 13th-century thangka painting of the Buddhist deity Vairocana doubled its high estimate, selling to an American collector for $1.5 million. Commenting on the sales of these classical works, Hugo Weihe, Christie’s director of Asian art, attributed the strong prices to the “quality, rarity and provenance” of the objects. In all, the Indian and Southeast Asian art sale realized $21.9 million; it was 63 percent sold by lot.

In South Asian modern and contemporary art, Christie’s set a record for contemporary Indian painting when Maqbool Fida Husain’s early 1970s large-scale scene from the Indian epic Battle of Ganga and Jumuna: Mahabharata 12 doubled its high estimate to reach $1.6 million.

A record for another living Indian painter, Ram Kumar, was set when an Asian collector paid $1.16 million for his 1956 oil portrait Vagabond (estimate: $400,000/600,000). All told, the modern and contemporary South Asian sale was 89 percent sold by lot and attained $10.97 million.

The Christie’s Chinese ceramics and works of art sale was 77 percent sold through, for $20.2 million. This included an 8-inch gilt bronze of a seated bodhisattva that set a record for a bronze of the Liao Dynasty (10th-11th centuries), selling above estimates for $2.5 million to art advisers Littleton & Hennessy Asian art.

Buyers of the top lots were a broad mix, including private collectors from the U.S., Asia and Europe as well as dealers. An American buyer paid $2.3 million, well above the $800,000/1.2 million estimate, for a Longuan celadon Kinuta vase from the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), while an Asian buyer acquired a large gilt-bronze figure of Manjusri (1423-1425) just clearing the low $1 million estimate with a final price of $1.049 million.

Hong Kong dealer Chak’s Company Ltd. acquired a rare underglazed red and blue pot for $769,000 (estimate: $200,000/300,000); and dealer Eskenazi Ltd., London, won a grayish-green jade blade from the Shang Dynasty (circa 1200 B.C.) for $421,000, also far above the modest estimate of $15,000/18,000. Specialist Zonars says results point to “the strength of the worldwide market,” adding that “confident bidding was witnessed in all categories.” A separate sale of Chinese textiles from the collection of Linda Wrigglesworth was 73 percent sold through and attained $1.8 million.

Chinese Triptych Leads at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s fifth auction of contemporary art from China, Korea and Japan realized $23.2 million and was 80 percent sold through by lot. The sale saw winning bids from both dealers and collectors from Europe, Asia and America.

The top lot was a triptych of three oils, Mask Series No. 11, by Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi, which was acquired by a European buyer for $1.2 million, just above the $1 million high estimate.

A 1996 oil from Zhang Xiaogang’s “Bloodline Series,” Big Family No. 8, fell below estimate to an Asian collector as the second-highest lot for $937,000. Autumn Mountains, a 2007 landscape by Li Huayi, set an auction record for a contemporary ink painting when it fetched $451,000, just clearing the $450,000 high estimate.

Sotheby’s auction of classical Chinese ceramics and works of art was 64 percent sold through by lot, for a total of $11.1 million. This included an early Ming dynasty bowl that nearly doubled its high estimate in selling to Chak’s for $825,000.

Sotheby’s held a sale of classical Indian and Southeast Asian pieces, as well as one of works by Indian artists active in the period before and after their country won independence in 1947.

The top lot in the classical art sale was a 30-inch-tall, circa 15th-century gilt copper of Tibet Buddha Vajrasana that went below estimate to an American buyer for $1.4 million. An Angkor period, Khmer sandstone torso of a female deity soared above its $30,000/50,000 estimate, selling to an American collector for $361,000, as did a miniature painting, illustrating a scene from the Bhagavata Purana, which fell to an American dealer for $193,000, way more than six times its $30,000 high estimate.

The modern Indian art sale attained $5.1 million and was 74 percent sold through by lot. As at Christie’s, the top lot here was by Husain, with an early untitled picture of a village puppeteer from 1953 selling to an Indian dealer for $409,000, well above its $300,000 high estimate.

Five other Husains were in the top ten, and Zara Porter Hill, head of Sotheby’s Indian and Southeast Asian department, reported that demand for the artist’s work had been “strong” internationally.

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