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Spring Asian Art Sales Fall Sharply Amid Tepid Buyer Demand

Works from prestigious collections helped bolster a weakened market at Sotheby’s and Christie’s pared-down auctions of Asian art in New York March 17–20.

NEW YORK—Works from prestigious collections helped bolster a weakened market at Sotheby’s and Christie’s pared-down auctions of Asian art in New York March 17–20. While many works were bought in, those from well-known collections still found buyers at high prices.

Sotheby’s took in a total of $7.2 million for a pair of sales: one of Chinese ceramics, the other of Southeast Asian art, in which 20th-century Indian painting was the highlight. Christie’s brought in a total of $36.4 million for five sales spanning Japanese and Korean art, Chinese art, Indian and Southeast Asian works of art, and South Asian modern and contemporary art. The total for the series is about a third of the $126.4 million achieved last year, $46.4 million of which was sold by Sotheby’s and $80 million of which was sold by Christie’s (ANL, 4/1/08).

Brighter Picture for Private Collections

The standout sales at Christie’s this year were one of Chinese art from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections and one of Chinese ceramics and works of art, including works from the estate of Walter Hochstadter, a Chinese-American family collection, and Harvard University, as well as a selection of jades being deaccessioned by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

All but one of the 199 lots in the Sackler sale were sold, topped by a white marble Buddhist votive stele, Northern Qi Dynasty (550–577), which sold for $1.7 million to an anonymous buyer (estimate: $300,000/500,000). All but one of the top ten lots in the Sackler sale sold above high estimate, and many sold for prices several times their estimates. The other Chinese sale at Christie’s yielded the highest price of the week: $2.3 million, paid by an Asian private collector for a blue and white basin, Ming Dynasty, Yongle period (1403–25), against a $400,000/600,000 estimate. All of the top ten lots in this sale were decorative vessels and all but two sold well over their high estimates.

Christie’s South Asian modern and contemporary sale totaled $2.4 million, with 45, or 63 percent, of the 72 lots finding buyers. The top lot was an untitled 1965 oil painting by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, which sold within the estimate of $300,000/500,000 for $482,500. Hugo Weihe, Christie’s head of Indian and Southeast Asian art, commented afterwards that the sale yielded “solid results for mid-level price ranges.” By value, the auction was 54 percent sold.

Christie’s sale of classical Indian and Southeast Asian art was 55 percent sold by lot, 43 percent sold by value, for a total of $3 million. The top price of the 230 lots offered was given for a buff sandstone sculpture of the Hindu goddess Sachika, 1179, from Rajasthan, which sold for $242,500, near the low end of the $200,000/300,000 estimate. Christie’s sale of Japanese and Korean art on March 17 was also 55 percent sold by lot, but only 35 percent sold by value, yielding a total of $1.7 million.

Sotheby’s sale of Chinese art had 163 lots on offer, and 96 sold, for a 59 percent sell-through rate by lot and a $4 million total. The top lot was a pair of famille-rose ceramic jars depicting the Eight Daoist Immortals, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong period (1736–95), from the collection of Gordon Getty, which sold above the $300,000/400,000 estimate to an Asian private collector for $632,500. That was followed by a famille-rose lantern-shaped vase from the same period, which also sold to an Asian collector for $602,500 (estimate: $300,000/500,000).

Most startling among the prices achieved was the $134,500 paid by an Asian collector for an 18th-century Qing Dynasty bronze vase that was modestly estimated at $15,000/20,000.

In Sotheby’s Indian and Southeast Asian sale, which totaled $3.2 million and had a 55 percent sell-through rate, the top lots were dominated by painters from the period after India’s independence in 1947.

These included Maqbool Fida Husain, whose untitled oil of two women, mid-1970s, was the top lot at $374,500 on an estimate of $150,000/200,000. Francis Newton Souza’s untitled painting of a nude woman, 1954, sold for $302,500 (estimate: $100,000/200,000); Akbar Padamsee’s Untitled (Nude), 1960, fetched $242,500 (estimate: $200,000/300,000); and Ram Kumar’s Trio, late 1950s, sold for $110,500 on an $80,000/100,000 estimate.

Buyers for the modern works included collectors from the U.S. and Britain. One highlight of the classical works was a 7½-inch-high stone altarpiece, Pala period, 12th century, from eastern India. The votive sculpture depicts a meditating Buddha surrounded by historical scenes from his life. Estimated at $12,000/18,000, it sold to a U.S. collector for $98,500.

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