Auction Houses Report Mixed Results for Asian Sales


Last week, New York’s autumn season was ushered in by a week of Asian art sales at several of the city’s auction houses. Christie’s and Sotheby’s each sold over $40 million of material, mostly in the Chinese categories. Meanwhile, Bonhams’ star lot came during their Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art auction when the so-called Ellenberg Buddha sold for $674,500 and set the record for a Mon Dvaravati bronze sculpture sold at auction.

Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian art sale on Sept. 10 realized $2.6 million, with 58% of by lot and 63% by value finding buyers. An untitled canvas by MF Husain expected to bring as much as $700,000 carried the highest estimate of the sale and was bought in. The sale was instead led by another untitled work by the Indian painter, subtitled Dancers Under a Full Moon, which fetched $290,500 against a high estimate of $150,000.

Christie’s auction in the same category on Sept. 12 brought $7 million with 76% sold by lot and 91% by value. Paintings by Husain were popular there too, especially a large work from the 1980s depicting galloping and rearing horses that came from a French collection and sold for $542,500 against a high estimate of $150,000. Though Husain took half of the top 10 prices at the session, the sale was led by an abstract work by Vasudeo Gaitonde, billed as the “Rothko of India” by Christie’s international director of Asian art, Hugo Weihe. It sold for $962,500 (est. $450,000–600,000).

Christie’s held a sale that same day of Indian and Southeast Asian art, which featured antique paintings and sculptures. A 13th-14th century thangka acquired by Eugenio Ghersi during an expedition with the Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci set the record for a thangka at auction when it sold for $1.8 million (est. $400,000–600,000), reportedly to a European buyer. A second thangka with the same provenance sold for $1.1 million, also well above its estimate. In all, the sale realized $7.7 million and sold 72% by lot and 95% by value.

On Sept. 11 Bonhams hosted a sale in that category, with most of the earnings from their Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art auction coming from the $674,500 sale of the cast bronze Buddha in the Mon Dvaravati style from the collection of the late Natasha Ellenberg, an independent scholar of Indian and Southeast Asian art.

Sotheby’s did not offer Indian and Southeast Asian antiquities and instead held their two-session sale of Chinese ceramics and works of art Sept. 11-12. A square carved jade seal from the 18th century was the category’s most expensive lot, bringing in $3.5 million against a high estimate of $1.2 million. The auction house was quick to publicize the sale of a moonflask for $1.3 million that was in the same collection for decades and was most recently used as a doorstop in a Long Island home.

The Walters Museum in Baltimore boosted its Asian Art Acquisitions Fund with the sale of a porcelain Wucai fish jar for $2 million. The jar was estimated to bring $500,000-700,000. In total, the Sotheby’s sale brought $27 million, above the high estimate of $21.6 million and an improvement over last year’s sale in the category, which took in$22 million.

Christie’s did not improve on last year’s numbers in this category. Their $19.5 million sale on Sept. 13 lacked the flashy piece of jade or porcelain that normally boost these auctions, as it did for Christie’s last year when a Qianlong moonflask contributed $2.7 million to the sale’s $39 million total. Instead, bronze took the top two spots – a pair of wine vessels from the 12th-10th century BC sold for $1.4 million (est. $200,000–300,000) and $842,500 (est. $600,000–800,000).

The Rockefeller Center auction house had more success with a 129-lot sale of Asian art reference books, many from the collection of the renowned scholar C.T. Loo, also on Sept. 13. The white-glove sale realized $1.3 million and indicates surging demand by collectors of Chinese art for reference books about objects in their collections. With very few exceptions, the volumes were published in the 20th century and cover a wide range of reference material, including auction catalogues and archeological journals. The modest estimates on the vast majority of lots suggest that the auction underestimated interest in this material. The top lot was an incomplete set of volumes from the 1950s about Buddhist cave temples of the 5th century in China that sold for $74,500 against a high estimate of $7,000. Elsewhere, a book titled Buddhist Art In Its Relation to Buddhist Ideals, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1915, brought $56,250 against an estimate of just $300-500.

On the 13th, Sotheby’s held a sale of classical Chinese paintings that did $16.5 million, well above estimates of $7.4 million – $11.8 million. Much of the success of that session was a result of the sale of a 17th century scroll by the Qing painter Hongren for $3.2 million (est. $600,000–800,000).

In all, Sotheby’s series of sales totaled $46.1, a hair above Christie’s $44.7 million total. Sotheby’s will stage another round of Asian art sales in Hong Kong during the second week of October. Amid the Asia week sales, Charlotte Burns of The Art Newspaper reported that Sotheby’s has signed a 10-year agreement with the Beijing GeHua Art Company, allowing Sotheby’s to do business in mainland China and not just Hong Kong. In addition to the expanded offices Sotheby’s opened in Hong Kong in May, the partnership with GeHua represents the house’s focus on growing business in China.