ARTnewsletter Archive

Sharp Rebound in Volume at Asian-Art Auctions

The results of auctions held at Sotheby’s and Christie’s during the semiannual Asia Week series March 23–26 indicated a recovery from the tepid sales of last year (ANL, 3/31/09).

NEW YORK—The results of auctions held at Sotheby’s and Christie’s during the semiannual Asia Week series March 23–26 indicated a recovery from the tepid sales of last year (ANL, 3/31/09). The houses reported total sales of $82.5million, roughly double the $43.6million total achieved last March.

Christie’s posted a total of $60million for six sales, up considerably from the $36.4million achieved last year for five sales. This year the house offered sales of modern and contemporary South Asian art, Indian and Southeast Asian art, Japanese and Korean art, and Chinese ceramics and works of art, as well as two single-owner sales of art from the collections of Robert Blumenfield and Arthur M. Sackler.

Sotheby’s experienced an even larger spike in sales volume, posting a total of $22.6million for two sales—of Chinese ceramics and Indian and Southeast Asian art—well over the estimate of $10.6million/15million and triple the $7.2million achieved last year for two sales in the same categories.

Although the traditional collecting category of Chinese ceramics and works of art continues to account for the bulk of Asia Week sales—this season contributing $40million at Christie’s and $14.4million at Sotheby’s—modern and contemporary South Asian art continues to be a bright spot. Meanwhile Chinese contemporary art, whether in larger sales or in dedicated auctions, was notable for its absence in New York salerooms after its considerable appreciation in price in recent years. In 2008, Sotheby’s announced it was moving its Chinese-contemporary sales to Hong Kong, where specialists believe the highest prices can be attained. Christie’s specialists also say most of their Chinese-contemporary sales are now handled through their Hong Kong branch.

Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby’s vice chairman of Asian art, said that from time to time “a few of the more international and iconic pieces” are included in sales in London and New York, but “Hong Kong has become the focal point.” Sneyd noted that one pronounced effect of the recent financial crisis on this market is collectors’ decision to “hold onto their pieces and not sell. This has meant there is a shortage of high-quality material on the market.” However, he added, “Prices for the top end, often sold privately, actually remain very strong and above 2008 levels.”

Modern Indian Paintings Lead Sotheby’s Sale

Modern works dominated Sotheby’s $8.2million sale of Indian and Southeast Asian art on March 24. Of 180 lots on offer, 131, or 73 percent, found buyers. By value the auction was 84 percent sold.

The house set a new record for a work by Manjit Bawa (1941–2008) when an untitled oil depicting a woman standing atop two white horses against a dark red background doubled the $200,000/300,000 estimate to sell for $602,500. Specialist Zara Porter-Hill called it “by far the most important work by Bawa to have appeared at auction in the past ten years and it attracted interest from all around the world.”

The top lot of the sale was an untitled 1955 oil by Maqbool Fida Husain (b. 1915), which soared past its $150,000/200,000 estimate to sell for $1.06million. Works by Tyeb Mehta (1925–2009) and Syed Haider Raza (b. 1922) also figured among the top lots, at prices that exceeded estimates. An untitled 1959 painting by Mehta depicting a reclining woman sold for $566,500 against a $100,000/120,000 estimate, and Raza’s acrylic on canvas L’inconnu, 1971, sold for $458,500 against an estimate of $120,000/180,000.

Raza was also the top-selling artist at Christie’s sale of South Asian modern and contemporary art on March 23, which took in $8.9million for 91 lots. Of these, 75, or 82 percent, found buyers; the auction was 95 percent sold by value. Raza’s later abstract painting Gestation, 1989, sold for $1.2million on an estimate of $600,000/800,000. That was followed by Husain’s painting Sita Hanuman, 1979, which sold for $842,500 on an estimate of $600,000/800,000.

Projjal Dutta, a partner in Aicon Gallery, New York, which specializes in Asian contemporary art, told ARTnewsletter, “the moderns—artists such as Husain, Raza and [Vasudeo S.] Gaitonde, who worked in the decades immediately preceding Indian independence in August 1947, have had the greatest successes recently.” Gaitonde’s Blue Abstract, 1965, was also among the top selling lots at Christie’s, bringing $554,500 against a $250,000/350,000 estimate. Another untitled painting by Bawa, from 1999, sold for $434,500, also far surpassing its estimate of $120,000/180,000. Christie’s specialist Hugo Weihe called the sale “well-edited,” and said it drew “immense and competitive bidding for some of the finest modern and contemporary works from India and South Asia.”

In the more traditional Asian art collecting categories, Sotheby’s sold a classical Chinese painting, Two Mynas on a Rock, 1692, by Bada Shanren (1626–1705), to a private Asian collector for $3million against a $400,000/600,000 estimate.

Christie’s sale of works from the Blumenfield collection totaled $13.86million for 157 lots offered. A new U.S. auction record for a classical Chinese painting was set by Yu Zhiding (1647-1716), Happiness through Chan Practice: Portrait of Wang Shizhen. The hand scroll in ink and pigment on silk sold for $3.44million, 20 times its estimate of $120,000/150,000.

Christie’s sale of Chinese ceramics and works of art was led by a large white jade figure of Buddha, 18th or 19th century, which sold to an Asian collector for $2.3million on a $150,000/200,000 estimate