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editorials - January - February 2005

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TRULY IT CAN BE said that Hong Kong is one of the most fascinating cities in the world, where people of different cultures and races can live in harmony and peace together. Thankfully I have worked here continuously since I married in 1959 and my life has run smoothly with my family. Importantly, Hong Kong is a unique springboard to mainland China and continues to progress positively as a modern city with Chinese and European roots.

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It would be tempting fate for me to claim Hong Kong is one of the safest places in the world, but visitors to my office tell me our city is one of the friendliest in Asia. Images we see everyday on our television sets and newspapers confirm this. Our streets once again are crowded with people from overseas, and especially so by our friends from mainland China. I am mainly devoting my first 2005 editorial to local activities, including important saleroom auctions and openings of gallery exhibitions that have particularly interested me.

In my first picture, taken at the JW Mariott Hotel in Hong Kong, I am seen with leading London dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi (1), who has recently been successful at auctions bidding for himself and on behalf of clients. Spectacularly, on November 17th he purchased at Bonhams & Butterfields in San Francisco a rare and large Hongwu period (1368–1398) underglaze copper-red dish (2). The 18 inch diameter dish, made during the reign of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, is painted in the centre with blossoming chrysanthemums. It came from the San Francisco estate of Elinor Majors Carlisle, where it was used by the family to serve cracked crab.
 
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Dessa Goddard, Bonhams Director of Asian Works of Art (dessa.goddard@bonhams.com), took the dish on a global tour and on its arrival in Hong Kong I was very pleased to be allowed to handle it myself. With a provenance steeped in early American collecting in China, it was bought some time between 1900 and 1920 on trips to China by Elinor Majors Carlisle, daughter of Alexander Majors, a pioneer of American transportation and one of the founders of the Pony Express. I had forecast to
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Dessa, who personally discovered the dish at the family’s Bay Area estate, that with such a romantic provenance the spectacular dish would easily exceed the enticing estimate of US$1–2 million. So I would like to congratulate her on the stunning result—US$5.7 million!

Seen pictured is Frank O. Gehry (3), a recent visitor to Hong Kong in November. This international museum architect, winner of the prestigious 1989 Pritzker Architecture Prize, was here in connection with the Business of Design Week held at the Convention and Exhibition Centre. Gehry is famous for his bold and imaginative conception for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The adjoining picture of actress Jennifer Jones Simon with her late husband Norton Simon (4) was also first published by Arts of Asia in our March–April 2000 issue, in an article on the new installation of Asian art at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, for which Gehry was the architect.
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Sotheby's and Christie’s Autumn 2004 auctions, at the end of October and the beginning of November, produced record prices. The three-day auction at Sotheby's made a remarkable HK$590 million, their highest sale total achieved for a series of auctions in Hong Kong. Of the 1034 items offered 771 were sold, representing an increase of 31 per cent compared to Sotheby’s Spring 2004 auctions.

Christie’s Asian Art Autumn Auctions realised a spectacular total of over HK$490 million (US$63.7 million). This is 10 per cent higher than their last season's record sales, and a 100 per cent increase over their Asian art sales held in Hong Kong in October 2003. A total of HK$235 million was achieved on the first day of their latest auctions, which featured classical and modern paintings, contemporary Chinese art and Southeast Asian pictures. The highest total for any series of their painting sales held in Asia.
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Many have believed that in today’s market Chinese collectors from mainland China and Taipei are the most active buyers for highest quality Chinese porcelain and works of art. They will be surprised to learn there was stronger activity from European and American buyers, and that London dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi was dominant at the Hong Kong auctions. I took the opportunity, after the sales were over, to interview Giuseppe on how the auctions had fared.

Tuyet Nguyet—I saw you managed to buy so many important lots at Sotheby’s including the two large “dragon” vases. (A rare copper-red underglaze blue “dragon” vase, Qianlong mark and period, height 48 cm, HK$11.2 million (5); a superb copper-red underglaze blue “dragon” vase, Yongzheng mark and period, height 51 cm, HK$15.1 million (6).) How much did you spend?
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Giuseppe Eskenazi—I spent over HK$85 million at Sotheby's Hong Kong auctions. In fact I was the underbidder on the telephone for the “dragon” vases when they came up for sale during Sars. At that time my family didn't want me to travel here as they were very concerned about Sars. Nobody knew what would happen and I felt Sotheby's should have postponed their sales like Christie’s managed to do. That was the first Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale I have missed in thirty years. As you know I have been coming here since the inaugural Sotheby’s auction which you also attended. This time I also bid on the Imperial Qianlong mark and period lacquer box, which was sold only a few years ago.

T.N.—Before there was an unwritten rule that pieces should wait five to seven years before being re-offered for sale. Now we see items coming back on the market after one or two years. What do you think of this new policy?
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G.E.—Consignors shouldn’t put things back in the auction after only a year or two. It is a form of gambling. I do not have a single client who is buying purely to make money. Our clients are buying for pleasure and in order to keep their purchases. None of the pieces I buy come back onto the auction market. I have four or five major collectors for the top pieces and not one piece comes back.

T.N.—You also bought the most expensive piece in the Sotheby's sale. Are you happy?

G.E.—It was third time lucky for me. In previous sales I underbid the “peach” vase and the Xuande brushwasher. This time I got the Qianlong famille-rose meiping. I cannot be lucky every time.

T.N.—Who do you buy for at auctions?

G.E.—I am buying both for clients and for stock. Some of the very expensive pieces are for clients, but even at HK$10 million plus, I buy for stock. Six months later a client may like to buy the piece from me. I have to be reasonable with the price I offer my clients. I cannot ask too much. About 10–15 per cent extra is reasonable.

T.N.—What are your reactions to the auction catalogues?
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G.E.—I have previously seen quite a lot of the pieces in the Sotheby’s catalogues. I have known the meiping cover lot since 1970. I know the piece inside out and only had to check for any damage. It is perfection in enamelling, design and firing and is an icon in Chinese ceramics. I didn't know if I could buy it because the prices were escalating, but in the end I managed to buy the piece for a client. (A stunning ruby- ground famille-rose vase, Qianlong mark and period, height 37.5 cm, HK$41.5 million (7).)

T.N.—I saw Julian Thompson sitting next to Hong Kong collector Au Bak Ling in the auction room. Is Julian his advisor?

G.E.—Au Bak Lin really does not need anyone to advise him now. I have handled his pieces four times for the exhibition at the R.A. and he has the very best pieces in a private collection. He is a highly intelligent man and Julian Thompson has been his advisor in the past, and of course is his friend.

T.N.—What will he eventually do with his collection?
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G.E.—I don’t know, but he can always give his pieces to me to sell...or I could buy his collection.

T.N.—How do you feel about the estimates?

G.E.—The estimates were high, but both auction houses managed to produce excellent pieces and prices. The Yongzheng celadon-glazed amphora at Christie’s was bought by Alan Chuang, who has impeccable taste, for HK$17.4 million (8). It had been purchased at Christie’s New York in 1999 for approximately US$400,000 by Chong-Moon Lee who is the major benefactor of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

T.N.—China has developed so quickly in recent years and mainland Chinese have much greater freedom to travel and buy abroad. How has this affected the Hong Kong auctions?

G.E.—I am very surprised that so many laws have changed in China. Paying large sums by cash cannot be accepted by the auction houses as banks are clamping down on money laundering. That has already made a positive impact on the market.

T.N.—At both auctions I saw James Hennessy of Littleton & Hennessy Asian Art bidding very strongly for rare pieces. (An important Cizhou sgraffiato meiping, Northern Song dynasty, 11th/12th century, height 27 cm, HK$13.5 million (9).) Do you know his clients?

G.E.—Amongst others, James buys for Edward C. Johnson 3rd of Fidelity Investments. However dealers often have more than one important client as they could not survive on one client alone.

T.N.—Where are your clients from?

G.E.—We have been buying pieces for a long time and most of the pieces have gone to the West. There are a lot of collectors for Chinese art in America and in Europe.

T.N.—How about the mainland Chinese buyers?

G.E.—Newspapers often write about the growing number of Chinese collectors but you cannot possibly think the pieces are only going to China. It’s a good story, but it is not necessarily true. There are still very good collectors in America and Europe as well as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.

T.N.—Are the prices for Chinese ceramics and works of art too high?

G.E.—In the 1970s and 1990s we had two bubbles. If the market is manipulated and rises too fast it can collapse again. Some Chinese “collectors” are betting rather than collecting. If they are going to lose money on art then they will try something else, such as real estate or stocks and shares. All my clients are in it for the long term and they are not happy to see the market rise so rapidly. They may hold back and wait for the market to fall or stabilise. Also, there are now so many auction houses in China—it is not just about Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

T.N.—How accurate are the auction house estimates?

G.E.—The estimates are not necessarily relevant. A buyer just bids up to a price that he thinks is correct. There are two people in my gallery researching past auction catalogues to find out when pieces were previously sold and the prices they fetched. In the past, it was five to seven years before a piece could be resold at auction. Now that does not matter at all. I will not be surprised if some pieces sold today come back in a year or two. The auction houses are very hungry for material, but I rarely sell through auctions. I want to have the best pieces in my gallery.

T.N.—How is Julian Thompson now that he has left Sotheby’s?

G.E.—As you know Julian Thompson started Sotheby's in Hong Kong from zero. He looks happy and is enjoying himself. Patti Wong is now the Chairman of Sotheby's Asia. She knows everyone in Hong Kong as well as all the collectors. She is a very good choice for the job.

T.N.—Can you summarise the market for Chinese ceramics?
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G.E.—Ming is extremely strong now, but five years ago it went through a bad patch. The Yongle brushwasher at Christie’s had a short rim hairline and was not the best example yet it sold very well for HK$26.3 million (10). So pieces are fetching high prices. Qing has always been strong, but it is now particularly strong in Hong Kong. America and Europe are much better markets for the early material.

T.N.—How will the Chinese art market develop in the future?

G.E.—There is a new generation of people under forty entering the market. The new young dealers will have new collectors and so it will go on. New collectors do come to us to talk about Chinese art. They study, buy a piece and end up being serious collectors. Arts of Asia with its articles by scholars is a very necessary journal for the art market. It is a valuable publication and without a doubt it is one of the best. The deadlines would be very hard for me to deal with and it comes out in a very timely manner.

T.N.—What are new collectors interested in?

G.E.—There is no doubt that contemporary art appeals to the younger generation and I think contemporary Chinese painting is also going that way. It takes a lot of money to be able to buy the best porcelain and to carry on buying. You have to be seriously wealthy and have spare funds to collect—that is if you don't speculate.

T.N.—What is your advice to young collectors?
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G.E.—Whatever field they buy in, they should try to seek out the best quality, condition and the finest examples in the period they are collecting. They have to know what they are buying.

T.N.—How are your relationships with clients?

G.E.—We have the total trust of our clients. I always tell them all the positive and negative points but the client will always make the final decision, depending on how badly they want a piece. It is their collection and they have to decide if they want the piece. You finish up becoming friends with a collector and there is total trust in the relationship. Top dealers help top collectors form major collections while building a relationship. Invariably the collector is a busy man and collecting is a hobby. But for the dealer it is his profession and he needs to devote the time and energy to find good pieces and give the collector an option to buy and decide whether it is suitable for his collection.

In my September–October 2001 Editorial I mentioned that William Chak of Chak’s Company Limited (76–78 Hollywood Road) was actively buying in Hong Kong, New York and London auction rooms, for his many mainland Chinese collectors and his gallery which he founded in 1988. Who better to present a Chinese view of the latest Hong Kong Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales? My following interview took place in his gallery on November 2nd, 2004 where we are seen studying the auction catalogues (11).

Tuyet Nguyet—Why didn’t the Taiwanese bid for the meiping (7) that was bought by Eskenazi for HK$41.5 million at Sotheby’s?

William Chak—It had been in Taiwan for a long time. That's why the Taiwanese collectors didn’t want to support the piece and the HK$30–40 million estimate was so high. Before the sale I told my clients Eskenazi would buy it. Mr Alan Chuang was the underbidder. Major pieces were re-offered in one or two years. The auction houses are all competing for pieces. For the meiping, China Guardian offered to auction it with a reserve of HK$15 million, Christie's with a reserve of HK$20 million and Sotheby’s HK$30 million. The Yongzheng mark and period famille-rose “peach” vase which sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong in May 2002 for HK$41.5 million had been more reasonably estimated at HK$15–25 million. That is why that piece drew so many bidders at that time.

T.N.—What is the difference between collectors today and in the past?

W.C.—Most collectors these days want to know what the pieces are likely to cost in the future. When I was formerly working for Hong Kong dealer Mr Wong for over twenty years at Fook Shing Antiques, that never happened. If you want to make money then invest in the stock market. Old collectors such as T.Y. Chao, C.P. Lin, Roger Lam and Edward T. Chow enjoyed the collecting experience. Now the idea is different. In Taiwan they still have big collectors who like what they buy and do not resell. But some mainland Chinese clients buy to invest and not to collect.
 
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T.N.—Why were there so many Japanese dealers attending the auctions this time?

W.C.—The Yongle mark and period lacquer box (12) at Sotheby’s for HK$11,262,400 came from Japan. That is one of the reasons why there were so many Japanese dealers in the auction rooms. They are watching the sales but not buying. About 30 per cent of the pieces at Sotheby’s and Christie’s were consigned from Japan. It has been like this for two years. About twenty Japanese dealers came to Hong Kong to watch the market and learn what sells well.

T.N.—Do the dealers bring you pieces to buy if they do not sell at auction?

W.C.—I like dealers to sell me fresh pieces rather than trying the auctions first. That is natural. Also auction houses don't like it when bought-in pieces are purchased after a sale. Only if a client regrets buying during an auction would we approach the auction house. Collectors also don't want to buy pieces that were only consigned a year or two ago and are now being offered at higher estimates. Consignors are being too greedy and many of the lots end up unsold. The results are a lesson to the auction houses that they should not accept pieces that were sold recently as serious collectors and dealers will remember them.

Sometimes collectors need to have their money back and are forced to sell. For example a Chinese property developer who recently amassed a large number of ceramics in a short time consigned many lots in the Sotheby's auction. If collectors want to make money from buying and selling antiques it is possible, but then they need to be patient and wait. There is little chance otherwise of making good money as a collector, and in the short term it ruins the market. If the pieces are not fresh then it is not so interesting for collectors. When the estimates are fair then people bid.
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T.N.—Why was there little interest for monochromes?

W.C.—Many of the monochromes came on the market three years ago and did not sell. The condition was not the best and the estimates were high. If a piece is of value and the estimate is reasonable then it will sell. For example Christie's Lot 1172, a Yongzheng mark and period celadon-glazed vase (13), had a HK$300,000–400,000 estimate and sold for over HK$1 million. The same piece was unsold at Christie’s in October 2001 when it had an estimate of HK$600,000– 800,000. By lowering the estimates there was competitive bidding and the vase sold for a good price.

T.N.—Why did many of the jade pieces fail to find buyers?

W.C.—Mr Charles Tsu-Kwok Ho, a big collector, was not buying because he was arranging for his exhibition “A Romance with Jade” to be held at Yongshou Gong, Palace Museum, Beijing for four weeks from November 29th, 2004. However, he may have bought the Qianlong white jade “dragon” seal at Sotheby’s that went to Hong Kong dealer Elegant Wong for HK$14,062,400 (14).
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T.N.—Your wife Priscilla bought a rare calcified spinach-green jade “champion” vase from the Qianlong period for HK$621,400 (15). Is that for her client?

W.C.—Normally for jades Priscilla will buy first and then show them to her clients. She feels the prices for jades were rather high, and since her clients collect for pleasure they can wait.

T.N.—What do you advise your clients to collect?

W.C.—I always tell them to buy something beautiful. Monochromes are not as popular with new collectors; that is why I recommend multicolour porcelain. The prices for famille-rose examples have consistently gone up. Even if collectors don’t sell their pieces for five years they feel happy about their purchases. Collectors may also have more than one collection. For example one of my clients buys Emperor Qianlong works of art, Daoguang porcelain, Imperial Court paintings with Imperial seals, and modern and contemporary Chinese paintings. These days there are too many auctions; I cannot attend them all. There are important sales in Shanghai and Beijing, and newer ones all over China. I much prefer the old days as it is now too rushed. The China market alone occupies a third of my time.
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T.N.—Do you think the market for Chinese ceramics, works of art and paintings will continue to grow?

W.C.—I cannot find any reason why the market for ceramics will not continue to grow. There are many new buyers. For paintings the prices are still reasonable compared to Western contemporary paintings. It will still grow but not as quickly as over the last few years.

T.N.—How come the auction houses are able to attract so many lots for sale?

W.C.—Most of the large auction houses are experienced at handling genuine pieces. Old collectors know that prices are now strong, so that’s why there are many items being offered, especially for Chinese paintings. An artist such as Qi Baishi may have painted 30,000 works.
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On October 25th, 2004 I was very happy to view the exhibition “Noble Riders from Pines and Deserts: The Artistic Legacy of the Qidan” at the Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. This beautifully displayed exhibition continues until February 20th, 2005 and is the first major show devoted exclusively to the art of the Qidans, since they founded the Liao dynasty (916–1125) and became the equestrian rulers of North China. The artefacts in the exhibition came from the Art Museum and loaned by several Hong Kong collections: Jiurutang; Meadow Spring; Mengdiexuan; Xiwenguo Zhai; as well as the collections of Mr Roger Chow; Dr S.Y. Kwan; and Mr Frank Wu.
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I was also able to attend the enlightening one-day symposium that supported the “Noble Riders” exhibition and participate to a limited extent by asking questions. Seen at the lecture hall are the four speakers, Peter Y.K. Lam, Director, Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong; Zhao Feng, Deputy Director, China National Silk Museum; Hiromi Kinoshita, Ph.D Candidate, Oxford University; Emma C. Bunker, Special Consultant, Denver Art Museum; and symposium moderator Jenny F. So, Professor of Fine Arts, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (16). Professor Peter Lam's scholarly and fascinating lecture discussing Liao dynasty phoenix-headed ewers, which he calls “barbarian bottles”, was highly appreciated by those attending his presentation. As a result it will be published as an article in our magazine in 2005, and illustrated with excellent examples from The Palace Museum in Beijing, British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Tokyo National Museum, Idemitsu Museum, National Museum of the Philippines, the Tsui Museum of Art and a number of important institutions in China and the region.

Arts of Asia contributor Emma C. Bunker has also written a comprehensive review of the exhibition's excellent dual-language hard cover catalogue, available from The Chinese University of Hong Kong (artmuseum@cuhk.edu.hk) for HK$500 or US$65. The book review is scheduled to appear in a following issue, in which Emma says, “This collaboration between professors and students resulted in a lavish publication that is on the cutting edge of scholarship, and epitomises exactly what a teaching institution should do to prepare its students for a future in either teaching, archaeological fieldwork, or museum work.”
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On the adjoining page I show photographs taken at a group of gallery openings in Hong Kong which I enjoyed. Most appropriate for the New Year, Gallery Oi Ling (85 Hollywood Road) celebrated the grand reopening of their new-look two-storey gallery. Their lion dance performance was the best I have seen in many years and was also appreciated by his large number of guests (17). In fact I noticed locals and tourists walking along the road and even taxis with passengers stop to watch the exciting show. I also must admit that their hors d'oeuvres were delicious. Delighted husband and wife gallery owners, Phillip Smyth and Oi Ling Chiang (18), specialise in Chinese stone carvings and pottery from the Northern dynasties (386–581) and Tang dynasty (618–906). I particularly admired the beautifully painted pair of earthenware guardian spirits that they had on display on the ground floor. I will make a point of returning to the gallery, where people should be able to buy with confidence, to study his pottery figures.
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I was also delighted to visit the new address of Hanlin Gallery at the central location of 19–27 Wyndham Street. I would like to congratulate owner Carlos Prata (19) on the spacious and inviting design he created for his new gallery. Carlos has a flair for the arrangement of elegant interiors and an eye for beautiful pieces as seen in the gallery’s range of carefully selected Oriental art. Carlos, whom I have known for many years, is particularly knowledgeable on Japanese prints, tansu and bamboo ikebana baskets, Chinese silver and furniture, and exquisite colour glass from Europe. I am convinced his new gallery, with its strategic position and long window display facing the busy street, will attract many collectors and encourage passers-by to walk in and browse around.
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Jonathan Wattis and his charming wife Vicky (20) of Wattis Fine Art (2nd Floor, 20 Hollywood Road) held an exhibition of historical original views of Macao and Hong Kong. They are photographed standing in front of a circa 1835 oil on canvas of the Praya Grande in Macao by a Chinese artist. Jonathan is particularly knowledgeable on maps and has a large collection. He is very friendly and took time to explain to me the attractive display of views from the early days of Macao from the late 16th and early 17th century and the formative years of Hong Kong from the mid-19th century through to the 20th century.

During the evening cocktail reception Arthur Hacker, who was born in England and studied at the Royal College of Art, presented and signed copies of his just published ninth book, China Illustrated: Western Views of the Middle Kingdom. Arthur moved to Hong Kong in 1968 where he became the Creative Director of the Hong Kong Government Information Services. He has written hundreds of historical articles for regional newspapers and magazines and has published eight books on the history of China and East Asia. An enthusiastic collector of postcards, old prints and old photographs of Hong Kong and China, he is seen with foreign correspondent Vaudine England (21). Over thirty copies of his new book were sold that evening at Wattis Fine Art—a topical gift for the New Year.
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Readers will remember I illustrated a painting by Vietnamese artist Nguyen Dieu Thuy in my November-December 2004 Editorial. At her “Symphony of White” exhibition organised by Zee Stone Gallery (43–55 Wyndham Street) I had the pleasure to meet Thuy in person and discuss the traditional themes of her work which remind me of my childhood in South Vietnam. She had a successful opening with at least four of her attractive large paintings selling to Western collectors. The proud owner of a major Thuy painting is Irish businessman Bill Condon, photographed at the exhibition with gallery owner Shaun Kelly on the right (22).

I would like to end my Editorial by warmly congratulating Emily Sano, Director of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, on her success in bringing the exhibition “The Kingdom of Siam: The Art of Central Thailand, 1350–1800” to the American public (see pages 35–48
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in this issue). I have no doubt they will find the exhibition of Thai sculptures and works of art most enjoyable and informative. What I truly wish for the 2005 New Year is global peace so that we are not fearful of our future, not only for ourselves but also our loved ones who live in America, which includes my son Michael, his wife Shari and their two daughters Haley and Olivia.



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