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editorials - July - August 2000

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EXACTLY ONE YEAR ago I published in our July-August 1999 issue the article "Scientific Examination of a Maitreya Bronze" by Dr Anna Bennett, an archaeological scientist and conservator with a PhD in the ancient metallurgy of Southeast Asia. She is also a fellow of the Centre for the Scientific Investigation of Works of Art, and is joint head of the commercial laboratory Conservation and Technical Services Ltd, both housed at the University of London. In her opening paragraph Dr Bennett wrote that the bronze (1) "closely resembled the known Pra Kon Chai hoard, a group of pre-Angkor bronzes discovered in 1964 which are highly prized by collectors and have been exhibited in internationally renowned museums".


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Dr Bennett followed the necessary methods for testing including X-ray photography and "taking wedge-shaped metal samples approximately 2 mm in length from various areas of the figure for metallographic examination". Her conclusion was that the samples taken were consistent with samples she tested from other Prakon Chai bronze mixtures (namely copper-78%, tin-17% and lead-4%, which is a tin-bronze metal mixture and not a bronze mixture for "Samrit" which contains mixtures of copper, gold or silver). However, the mixture of the metal has slight variations. For instance, the deity's head contains a lot of lead and examination of the left leg shows 71% copper.

From these results it is not possible to confirm whether the Maitreya bronze is real or fake as mixtures of such metals can be reproduced. However, Dr Bennett was also able to obtain a carbon 14 date "from the rice chaff contained within the core material of the bronze.
Rice chaff would only be a few years old at the most when it was used in the core and the dating of this material can thus provide a very accurate date for the object in question." The rice chaff was dated to between 330-650 AD with 95.5% certainty and to between 415-600 AD with 68.3% certainty, making this "one of the earliest dated pieces of Southeast Asian Art". Prakon Chai bronzes date from the 7th to 9th century. At the end of her article Dr Bennett summarises that although extensive research can be gathered from conducting a few well-chosen techniques of investigation, "this information must be carefully assessed and followed up with detailed research before any conclusions are drawn to the authenticity of the object under investigation. Instant results are rarely obtained." The owner of the Maitreya bronze told me that new samples were taken for further testing at two laboratories.

The article encouraged wide discussion from around the world, and especially in America, England and Thailand. A well-known collector of important bronzes wrote two articles in the Thai Rath newspaper on August 15th and 29th, 1999 and questioned whether the Maitreya tested was "one of the earliest dated pieces of major Southeast Asian Art". The article stated, "experts all over the world began to question the scientific methods used in the test carried out and their accuracy. What to do when the result contradicts with the eyes of the experts who do this for a living? If experts in Thailand are asked, not only will they smile and nod their head and tell you that it is a fake, they can even tell you the name of the hand that produced this fake."


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With such controversy over the Maitreya bronze, which is reported to have a US$6 million price tag, I wanted to provide more information for our subscribers on the subject of Prakon Chai. In this issue Dr Denise Patry Leidy, Associate Research Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has written a definitive cover article for ARTS OF ASIA readers for study and clarification. Her article "Prakon Chai and the Art of Southeast Asia in the 7th to 9th Centuries" (pages 28-41) involved extensive research, and recognised pieces were compared from the world's most prestigious museums and art institutions including The Asia Society Galleries, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Philadelphia Museum of Art.
I would like to thank Dr Leidy for taking the time to write her article, especially as she has an extremely busy schedule. The result is truly worthwhile. Not only does she provide a comprehensive record of Prakon Chai and Southeast Asian sculptures of the 7th to 9th centuries with fine examples illustrated, the publication of her article reaffirms our policy of following up on important issues discussed in the Asian art market.

Sir Hugh Cortazzi once again provides ARTS OF ASIA readers with the special opportunity to admire outstanding works by contemporary Japanese artists. Kenkichi Tomimoto (1886-1963), (2) one of the leaders and founders of the Mingei movement, was an innovative ceramic artist specialising in overglaze enamels (pages 42-53). Not widely known outside of Japan, he is regarded as one of Japan's leading artists of the 20th century. Credit for this article should also be given to Ryu Kaido, Tomimoto's grandson, who Sir Hugh met in 1998 following an exhibition of work by the great British potter Bernard Leach and Kenkichi Tomimoto at the Nara Prefectural Museum of Art. Tomimoto was born in Nara. Although the family has moved to live in Tokyo, the Tomimoto Memorial Museum, formerly his family house, is devoted to him and located in Nara. The museum is a little difficult to find, however if our readers are in Japan a visit is definitely worth the effort. Sir Hugh's article, which includes thirty-one attractive illustrations, also provides a list of locations for present and future exhibitions of "Kenkichi Tomimoto" showing in various locations, as well as at the Tomimoto Memorial Museum in Japan during the years 2000 and 2001.

I am delighted to introduce a new subject to our "younger" collectors, "Chinese Silver Needle Cases" (pages 64-81), which can still be reasonably purchased in Hong Kong and China. Margaret Duda's eighteen-page article with its numerous striking and beautiful colour photographs shows the great variety of pieces to choose from. During the months of April and May there were numerous art activities in Hong Kong.


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In the morning of Thursday, April 27th at the Jade Ballroom of the Furama Hotel, Treasure Auctioneer Ltd and its major shareholders including China CyberWorld Ltd and CNT Group staged a welcome ceremony for three world-renowned authentication consultants from China who have joined the company.

This is a great boost to the company's ability to give accurate appraisals. In the photograph (3) I am seen with authentication experts Geng Baochang and Yang Boda, both members of the State Committee for Authentication of Cultural relics, Yang Xin, Deputy Director of National Palace Museum, and Andrew Y.C. Wu, Treasure Auctioneer Ltd's Chief Operation Officer. The three experts delivered to an attentive audience very interesting speeches with slides on "Ceramics, Jade, and Art of Dragon". I only wish they had had more time to speak and allow the audience to ask questions. The three consultants came to Hong Kong to attend the "Theme Auction on the Art of Dragon" hosted by Treasure Auctioneer Ltd on April 29th and 30th. During the viewing the experts also provided free authentication services.

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This was the first time in my thirty years of publishing ARTS OF ASIA in Hong Kong that there had been so much local and international media attention surrounding the Sotheby's and Christie's auctions. On April 29th, it was reported in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper that officials from the State Bureau of Cultural Relics had been negotiating with both auction houses to remove four lots. The Sotheby's relics were a hexagonal vase (4) commissioned by Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) and a bronze zodiac tiger's head (5) from the same period. Christie's items were the bronze heads of a monkey (6) and an ox (7).

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The heads were among twelve Chinese astrological zodiac animals' heads commissioned by Imperial command which formed part of the famous horological fountain outside the Hall of the Calm Sea, one of the European palaces in the garden of the Yuanmingyuan outside Beijing. Mainland officials say the relics were "looted" from the old Summer Palace in Beijing by French and British troops in 1860. The three heads had been previously sold at auctions in London, New York and Hong Kong between 1987-1991. The tiger's head had been sold in London in 1989, and by Christie's in Hong Kong in October 1991 for HK$3.3 million. The pair to the hexagonal vase, which is now in the Chang Foundation in Taipei, was sold by Sotheby's in Hong Kong for HK$1.87 million. The one on sale this time was most recently sold in Hong Kong by Christie's in 1991 for HK$2.7 million.

Despite strong pressure from Beijing to prevent the sales both auction houses decided they could go ahead under Hong Kong law in accordance with the "one country, two systems" principle. A Chinese bureau official said, "it was an insult to the Chinese government and people" for these "looted" antiques to be auctioned in Hong Kong. Executive Councillor Tam Yiu-chung noted that although there was no legal way of banning the auctions he hoped they "would seriously consider not doing something that would hurt the Chinese people".


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Christie's auction on May 30th was delayed for nearly one hour as around eight local protestors tried to stop the sale. By chance I was actually walking along with the protestors who were carrying loudspeakers and banners as they made their way to the auction at the JW Marriott Hotel. I asked them what they were trying to achieve with the protest. Two of them replied in English, "If you were Chinese wouldn't you want to stop the sale as these pieces are our cultural heritage and must be returned to our motherland?" After exiting a lift they walked ahead and I witnessed them starting to shout, unfold their Chinese and English banners and scuffle with security guards at the auction entrance.
I managed to squeeze through and enter the auction room before the guards lowered the metal shutter to prevent the protesters from getting inside.

The Beijing-based China Poly Group Corporation (a telecommunications and property developer, and former commercial arm of the People's Liberation Army) publicly stated their interest in purchasing the bronze heads to ensure they were not lost to China. Their determined bidding secured the monkey and ox heads for HK$8.18 million and HK$7.74 million respectively. The Poly Art Museum, established in 1999, is the first private museum in China. Under the directorship of He Ping, a senior ranking officer in the PLA and son-in-law of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, it contributes part of its profits to the return of historical artefacts to the mainland.


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Similar protests were expected at Sotheby's on May 2nd. This time bidding was briefly disrupted when one man forced his way into the room yelling, "Stop selling looted goods. Return them to the motherland." China Poly Group Corporation bought the bronze tiger's head against the phone manned by Carlton C. Rochell, Jr, Sotheby's Managing Director, China and Southeast Asia, and Worldwide Head, Asian Art Departments, for an astonishing HK$15.44 million, which was almost the same amount paid for the two
bronze heads at Christie's. The Qianlong reticulated famille-rose hexagonal vase was sold to the Beijing Cultural Relics Company, a subsidiary of the Beijing municipal government, for HK$20.94 million against a Taiwanese dealer in the room.

The story does not end here, as after the auctions it was reported on May 8th in the South China Morning Post that the China Poly Group Corporation might not be able to raise HK$31.3 million to pay for the three bronze animal heads before the deadline. "It hoped the SAR government would intervene with the auction houses and convince them to release the pieces so they could be placed on display in Hong Kong before the bill was paid." However, the bills were soon settled and the Poly Art Museum exhibited the three bronze heads at the Hong Kong Museum of Art from May 16th-24th before being returned to China. Thirty-five thousand visitors saw the bronzes. On May 10th Qin Gong, General Manager of the Beijing Cultural Relics Company, died from a sudden heart attack reportedly caused from overwork and severe stress since making the decision to arrange the purchase of the Qianlong vase. Now the mood in Hong Kong among collectors and dealers of Chinese Imperial paintings, ceramics, bronzes and works of art is that they would prefer to buy and sell behind the scenes rather than go through public auctions.

On May 1st I had the great pleasure to meet and interview Edward Dolman, (8) Christie's new Chief Executive Officer and Christie's International Management Group Chairman. We have something in common as he and my second son Michael studied at the same time at Dulwich College in England. I was told by Anthony Lin, Chairman Christie's Asia, and Lillian Chin who is in charge of Christie's Beijing and Shanghai offices, photographed with Edward Dolman and myself, (9) that this is the first time Christie's has appointed a
 
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specialist to such a high position. They both speak very highly of him and seem to look forward to having a happy working relationship together. Edward Dolman is a warm and friendly man with a commanding build as a result of years playing competitive rugby. I feel confident that my readers will enjoy the following interview.

Tuyet Nguyet: Sotheby's has already invested heavily to establish online auctions. William Ruprecht, President and Chief Executive of Sotheby's, has announced he will spend another US$60 million on marketing the site this year after spending US$45 million last year. Would Christie's follow the same strategy?

Edward Dolman: We are doing a lot on the Internet. On our site we are offering a virtual tour of salerooms. We have LotFinder within the christies.com site and this enables you to research the past prices and what pieces are coming up. We looked at the Internet very carefully. We looked at the cost and consequences of setting up online auctions running on our brand name. We could not find a business model that made sense. We did not want a Christie's site that was just a vehicle for dealers to sell under-appraised work.
Our site enables us to reach more people. We have linked up with Microsoft to have live broadcast over the web. The live auction is exciting and if we get to more people then more people will be interested. On May 8th-9th we have a live Internet broadcast of Impressionist Art and 20th Century Paintings in New York. We are also trying to stimulate interest in art. For instance artist Jeff Koons had an online interview to coincide with the sale of Contemporary Art. We have twenty-five people based in New York for the Internet department.

TN: Can you please tell me about your background and how you reached the top as Christie's Chief Executive?

ED: I was born in London in 1960. From 1971-1978 I was at Dulwich College where I met your son Michael. We played rugby, hockey and cricket together. I then went on to study History of Art as part of a history degree at Southampton University. After university I decided to attend the Study Centre for Fine and Decorative Arts, which had a close relationship with the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is a well-known specialist college and I received a diploma there. After that I had three options: to become a dealer, but I had no capital or experience; to join a museum; or to join an auction house.

I joined Christie's because of Christie's South Kensington (I was not of blue-blood birth). I started as a porter in the furniture department and decided to give it a year because the pay was incredibly bad. However, it allowed me to keep up my interests in rugby at the Old Alleynians. After a year I got a break as the specialist in the furniture department of South Kensington left. I was a specialist for ten years. We saw just about everything at this high-volume saleroom including Chinese furniture. I became an auctioneer during that time and did a number of off-site sales at country estates. And to generate business in this middle market of furniture I travelled to France and Belgium.

I was on the Management Committee at that time and South Kensington started to do very well and had great sales. South Kensington is terribly exciting and interesting. After ten years, in 1995, I decided I wanted to become a manager and took a course at the Institute of Directors in the Mall and it taught me the language of business. I was also very interested in the motivation of people. I was then made Managing Director of Christie's Amsterdam. I enjoyed Amsterdam enormously and it was the first time I was in charge. I took some of the new techniques and marketing to enhance the interest for the stunning things for sale of real quality. After twenty months I left to return to Christie's London. The sale of Dutch 19th Century Paintings was fantastic quality. Amsterdam was good fun and very successful and as a result of that I came back to King Street to work as the Commercial Director to run Christie's Europe. I was trying to develop new categories to win business. Later Anthony Streatfeild moved up and I was made Managing Director.

Last July 4th I moved to New York as the International Managing Director and then later also as Chief Executive. In 1998, Christopher Davidge developed a group of young senior managers [the International Management Group] as you need a lot of energy to implement all the new ideas. We made a five-year business plan. It is a huge job, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. There is never any peace. By the time I moved to New York Christopher Davidge had decided that I should be his successor. Christopher Davidge picked me out but I had to be approved by Mr FranÇois Pinault. Mr Pinault is quite hands off and lets us get on with the job. I also get on very well with Lord Hindlip. He has an incredible appetite for life and we respect his judgment.

I have no problem working for a French-owned company and Mr Pinault. He works with a very tight group and has an incredible interest in art. He helps us. He has an expert team of analysts to help us implement the goals we set ourselves. Because he is an art fanatic he understands the business we are in and the need to develop clients over a number of years. We decided as a group that we really had to stake a claim on the high ground and be seen as the premier auctioneer, and that is another reason why we did not want to get involved in the Internet to dilute our brand. We have to be as good as we can possibly be at the top end of the market.

TN: What do you think is so far your best contribution to Christie's?

ED: My best contribution to Christie's is that I am the first Chief Executive to have been a specialist. I understand the pressure and the nature of valuing art. If you are a finance man you cannot understand why the market can be cruel sometimes and has nothing to do with the quality of the specialist.

It is like having an exam publicly marked. When you publish a catalogue and sale you are inviting other experts and the market to judge your expertise. There is an enormous pressure on the experts. But they are highly motivated. I am trying to change the structures slightly to make things better for specialists. It is interesting that the Chief Executive at Sotheby's is also an expert.

One of the problems we have is attracting specialists into our business. In the modern business environment we will never match those salaries in Wall Street, however we have and are continuing to make improvements. If we see a good specialist, we will try to get them involved. We have a graduate trainee programme but we need people who have a flair for the business, which may not necessarily be taught.

TN: We are delighted that you have come to Hong Kong so soon after your promotion to witness first hand the climate of our Chinese and Southeast Asian art market. How do you feel about the Hong Kong protest at Christie's entrance immediately before the auction of the so-called "looted" treasures from the palace garden of the Yuanmingyuan?

ED: Christopher Davidge really believed in Asia and we were all disappointed that the economic climate collapsed in the early 1990s. I wanted to come to Hong Kong, to see the team and to give them support. I plan to come here two or three times a year for the sales. I am also interested in Tokyo as a market. This is not my first time in Asia.

We thought there would be some protest. There was some lobbying by the Beijing government. It is very important for us to give confidence to those who support us. If there is no legal challenge then we have to go ahead. If we withdraw lots when there is no legal basis for us to, then people may lose confidence in us, and Hong Kong.

Over the years we have sold great works of art and there have been so many changes in ownership. These items had been sold before and being able to sell such pieces in a public auction allows them to be bought by their own countries. I am disappointed by some of the coverage though and some misstatements. I did not know that China Poly Group Corporation wanted to buy the pieces.

We need to discuss with the Beijing government what is a national treasure. Most countries are bound in law stating what is a national treasure. In England some items fail to get an export license. It keeps a value on the piece and does not allow it to be exported. We have to get some guidelines. If they want to establish guidelines we are happy with that and will work within them.

TN: Finally have you heard from the United States Department of Justice whether there is a strong case for collusion for both Christie's and Sotheby's?

ED: We are hoping that the Department of Justice will in the next couple of months come to some conclusion as to whether there is a case for collusion. Then we will come to some settlement of the class actions suits and get it over as fast as possible.

We have put the seller's commission down and moved up the buyer's premium to keep the level of profit. We do not negotiate with the buyer. We need to offer the seller more incentives to get the goods placed with us. Sotheby's offer a 20% initial buyer's premium in their live auction to try and drive the business to the sothebys.com business. We spend a lot of time and energy researching and gathering material. We also have great locations for our sale and somehow we need to maintain a level of profit.


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