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editorials - January - February 2004

Tuyet Nguyet—I am very happy for your 30th anniversary of Sotheby’s coming to Hong Kong, but I was worried because Julian Thompson was sick and could not come. Then I saw so many people viewing your sale during the preview so I was a little relieved, and when I saw you smiling at the auctioneer’s podium addressing the people in the ballroom before the sale I said to myself, “Henry will conquer”. With your fluid style of conducting the sale, it was very successful and I hope you will continue that way so as not to drag the bidding on. As you know people do get bored very quickly these days. You have to have the ability to make people feel captivated, which you did, and of course the results of your two best lots were remarkable.
Let’s start with the cover lot, the Qianlong mark and period bowl and its provenance. How do you feel about that lot?

Henry Howard-Sneyd—Well first I would like to thank you for your very kind words about our 30th anniversary, particularly about the way we were able to produce very exciting sales despite the very unfortunate lack of Julian on the day. He was incredibly frustrated being tied to his bed, though he was on the end of the telephone listening to everything. In fact everyone actually applauded when I mentioned he was there.

Coming specifically to this bowl, I think that one of the problems we face in the ceramics department is that the makers of ceramics in Jingdezhen are now proving themselves to be supremely clever. They have really made enough of an inroad in making fake pieces that even some of the better experts become a little uncertain. If you ask me, the result has been that people rely much too exclusively on provenance. Now this bowl actually has a very nice provenance, but owing to the situation of the family that owns the piece they were not prepared for us to put this into print. So I am afraid in an interview like this I cannot give you the full details, except to say by family tradition it has been known since 1903. But as I have said, the family was not happy for me to print this in the catalogue.

T.N.—Is it from a French collection?

H.H-S.—No, a European.

T.N.—Can you be more precise?

H.H-S.—I am afraid the family would be very unhappy if we went further than that. I would love to be able to tell you as it is a rather nice story. But the point about people basing decisions on provenance only indicates that they are just not certain of their own expertise. My own sense the moment I saw this bowl in its box, when the first view I got was of the inside, was that it immediately reminded me of the Bernat bowl—the famous bowl with puce landscape panels against yellow ground that we sold back in 1997.

T.N.—So you were the first to spot this bowl?

H.H-S.—No. Julian Thompson had already seen it but we were still in discussion about the piece. So my opinion on first sight was 100 per cent right. This is my own view having more recently been to the National Palace Museum in Taipei and having seen a wonderful small exhibition they were running on small tea wares but mostly Qing enamels—wonderful bowls, teapots and things like that. Again if you look at the inside it is identical. The quality, the enamelling, the look of the glaze, the look of the enamels against the glaze, all of it fits perfectly. You then look at the entire piece itself, the way it is very individualistic, there is no other one of this design which is exactly the same as all the other sets, they are all unique. I think the only thing people were a little uncertain about was this sense that they know that in Jingdezhen they can make very good modern ones but only since the last five years. This bowl has been known for longer than that.

T.N.—So the theory that it has been re-enamelled can be thrown out of the window?

H.H-S.—In my view you can throw that straight out of the window.

T.N.—What do you think of the foot? Is it rather too thick?

H.H-S.—No. It is exactly the right shape. Your suggestion that it is later enamelled would belie the idea that the foot was the wrong shape because the shape is exactly right. It is the right shape and exactly what you would expect. As I say, the individuality and idiosyncrasy of the design to me makes complete sense.

T.N.—Quite a few Chinese from mainland China and Taipei did ask why a small piece like this made such an enormous price of HK$26 million?

H.H-S.—Well I think if you want to collect the very highest of Qing dynasty porcelain you need to be looking at the guyuexuan, and this group is where every piece is individually painted. Occasionally there are repairs. You just do not have the opportunity to buy bowls with this very beautiful painted design in immaculate porcelain. Indeed the Bernat bowl was perhaps the last opportunity before this to buy a bowl of this type.

T.N.—What was the estimate for this bowl?

H.H-S.—The estimate was HK$15-20 million. To my mind I think HK$26 million is what these pieces are worth now. We were always thinking it would make above the estimate.

T.N.—But you were pleasantly surprised that it did go up to HK$26 million?

H.H-S.—I think pleasantly surprised. Yes.

T.N.—I said to myself, in Hong Kong the bowl costs more than a flat on the Peak.

H.H-S.—It is very difficult to relate the collecting of the finest of art to everyday life. If you look at the Rubens we sold in London last year for £47 million, well that is more than quite a few flats.

T.N.—Do you really think this bowl is unique and you cannot find a similar piece?

H.H-S—We failed to find anything directly like it and if you look at all those in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, and any others around the world, almost invariably they are without a partner. There is no other similar. They are painted like a painting with an inscription, colophon, poem and seals. So it is actually as a unique work of art that you would expect the painting to be individual.

T.N.—My next question relates to your seals (Lot 26), which also fetched HK$26 million. Don’t you think the prices have shot up to a high level in a rather short time?

H.H-S.—For the porcelain bowl we knew what it was worth, with no real debate about that. It was a question of whether it would make HK$22, HK$23, HK$24, HK$25 or HK$26 million. With the seals, as you say, this is a market which has moved much more dramatically. There is much less historical information to tell us what they should be worth. But with the seals we see the strength of present-day collectors who understand what seals are all about. When Europeans or Americans were collecting, the seal was a beautiful stone, beautifully carved with some sort of inscription on it. They possibly could not read it, and even if they could they did not know its significance. Now we know these things through better archiving and access to the records in China. We know not only what the seals mean, but also who used them and why. Often we can show paintings and inscriptions where seals were actually used.
All the pieces we had were very personal to the Qianlong emperor. It was rather a nice concept to have seals from the three different stages of his life: when he was the emperor to be, when he was actually the full emperor and then when he was what they called the emperor emeritus, after he abdicated in favour of Jiaqing. So here you had almost this wonderful sort of personal history of the emperor, and we were able to show those pieces being used by him, or on his behalf, on actual paintings.

T.N.—Were these seals used mainly by the emperor?

H.H-S.—Well, we do not know whether he personally handled them or whether he got his servants to do it.

T.N.—You mean these were from his own treasure?


T.N.—He would not ask somebody else to use his seals.

H.H-S.—That is something that is becoming increasingly clear and is appreciated by the Chinese, which is that this is his personal imprint. It is like the way in the West we have wax sealing signet rings which say unequivocally this letter comes from this person and nobody has a seal like this. It was like a signature that could not be forged.

T.N.—What was the estimate for these seals?

H.H-S.—This was complicated because the owner really did not want to split the seals apart, while we were concerned that people would not want to spend this huge amount of money to buy all three. So we agreed that what we should do was keep the collection together as one lot and then if they did not sell we would sell the seals in individual lots. To encourage the sale of the collection as a whole, the estimate was slightly lower that way. The result was we had many people interested.

T.N.—But what was the actual estimate?

H.H-S.—It was around HK$18-20 million.

T.N.—That was what I was told.

H.H-S.—The one lot sale estimate was unpublished. We published the individual lot estimates, which added were HK$20-26 million. I think that was really exciting. It was an affirmation by the market that these are very important pieces. It was a real exciting price. But they were not the only exciting prices. We had several lots that did well. For example we broke the record for nephrite jade.

T.N.—Can I just go back? Is the owner of these seals a Chinese, European or American?

H.H-S.—I am afraid I cannot say. I know the set of three was originally sold by Christie’s in 1987. I don’t know when this collector got them. One of the other pieces was sold in Paris four or five years ago. I don’t know where the other one came from. He assembled them together.

T.N.—How do you see the trend for such seals?

H.H-S.—I would say they have now reached a fully recognised level of price. I would expect, as they become fewer and fewer, as they go into private collections or museums the price will rise. Now seals have gone from near obscurity to fame, they should make significantly higher prices than they have previously.

T.N.—It seems nowadays auction houses around the world no longer wait a minimum four or five years to resell a piece?

H.H-S.—It is a feature of the way this market has been moving in the last two years. We have this new group of very strong mainland collectors. Now we only wait two years because the market has moved so much that there are new people involved who were not buying then. The feeling is not what was a piece worth before but rather what it is worth now. So it is a feature of the market and the way perception has changed.

T.N.—So don’t you think there is a risk those pieces turn around too fast?

H.H-S.—I don’t think it matters. The only question would be if you were the private person selling in a Paris auction for a price that was one tenth of what it made in Hong Kong. But equally two years ago the things may well not have been considered worth as much in Hong Kong.

T.N.—Why do you put the estimates so high these days?

H.H-S.—Because we think that is what they are worth. When we put the estimate at HK$18 million for the seals they made HK$26 million. It was not our pushing that made the price, it was people competing. I can tell you there were five I know who actually bid as well as several others who were seriously interested. Maybe they had hoped to get them for HK$16-17 million.

T.N.—On what grounds do you assert that the jade mountain (Lot 32) was Imperial Qianlong?

H.H-S.—By comparison with what we know to be in the Imperial Collections. A feature about jade, almost more than the carving, is the size and quality of the stone that defines whether the piece has been in the Imperial Collection or not. This is based on understanding what is still in the Imperial Collection.

T.N.—I thought the carving on the jade mountain was rather poor. You can hardly see the faces on the luohans.

H.H-S.—I disagree, the carving is wonderful and of this particular school. We think you can distinguish probably two carvers. The carver of the little figures in the niches, which are like the larger figures you find of an immortal sitting on a rock. Then the general rockwork and the sorts of trees are more like the more standard high-quality boulder carving. So we think there were two schools or craftsmen working on this piece that gives that slight sense of two different styles.

T.N.—I have noticed that on Imperial jades the inscription should be gilded. Is this correct?

H.H-S.—If there is an inscription but not all of them have inscriptions.

T.N.—I agree, but I felt the carving of the jade mountain was not crisp enough.

H.H-S.—Well maybe it is a question of opinion, but I love this jade mountain and the way it is carved. It is very beautiful.

T.N.—But I have seen larger Qianlong jade boulders that have been very beautifully carved.

H.H-S.—I am not denying that, but you have to remember Qianlong reigned for sixty years and the quality and range that were produced in that time was huge. In fact, if you look at some of the early Qianlong pieces, before the emperor conquered the Khotan region in 1760, you would not believe them to be Imperial if you base your thinking on the fact that the emperor liked white jade.

T.N.—This one does not have an Imperial inscription.

H.H-S—No it does not. If you read the Imperial orders sometimes the emperor has an inscription carved on the piece and sometimes he does not. In the records of the Qing court you can actually find references to orders and later saying that this had been inscribed or otherwise. The emperor looks at the jade piece and says that looks beautiful please carve something on it.

T.N.—So to recap, by what criteria can you assert that this is an Imperial Qianlong piece?

H.H-S.—By the quality and the size. There is no doubt the size and quality of this carving has to be Imperial. The availability of stone of this size was so limited and it all went to the emperor.

T.N.—What disturbs me is, whether in London, New York, China or Hong Kong, how freely people love to use the word Imperial. It seems to me that even lesser quality pieces are being branded Imperial. What is your own definition of Imperial?

H.H-S.—Our own definition is pieces that would undoubtedly be for the Imperial household.

T.N.—But how do you know?

H.H-S.—Well we are attributing it. We are making an attribution that it is for the Imperial household based on all the evidence we can find. In the case of something of jade there is a lot of evidence and information available that tells us that the most important pieces without doubt would have gone to the emperor’s workshops. You can compare the style of these carvings very closely with pieces that are inscribed and clearly ordered by the emperor. We sold one of a set of luohans last time and there have been others on the market as well. So we know for a fact that these would have been for the emperor’s household, to adorn one of his palaces. An undistinguished piece that has a mark is much more questionable and we tend to be much more circumspect. We take it very seriously when we use the word Imperial.

T.N.—I am glad to hear that. There are so many new inexperienced collectors and when they see an attribution with the word Imperial they get excited. The point is I think that word is over used. New collectors cannot be in the position to differentiate and they may pay too high based on the Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction catalogues. Are you in charge of the attributions?

H.H-S.—We discuss them as a team. In the ceramics and works of art catalogue Nicolas Chow would work with me and with Julian Thompson on what we thought. We also have Regina Krahl in London who does our research. Quite often we ask her to confirm a piece an owner believes to be Imperial. But we make sure whether we agree and do our research and more research to find evidence to confirm this. A very good example is a seal, which does not have an Imperial inscription. But in the official records you may actually find the seal recorded by the eunuchs when it was first made. You could find the seal actually used on a painting.

T.N.—If you, Julian, Regina and Nicolas have done the research and agree to a certain attribution, are you willing to stand by this? What are the conditions?

H.H-S.—For Chinese ceramics and works of art we stand by our guarantee which holds except for changes in scholarship. For example, someone might make a great discovery and a new book is published which shows all sorts of things that nobody knew of before. Besides that sort of discovery, we stand by our opinions for five years, as is stated in bold headings for each lot in the printed catalogues. That is something we pride ourselves very much on, as well as our care and ability to be correct on that basis. We consider this very important. It comes perhaps from Julian Thompson’s approach to be very serious about the attributions.
A problem is that people do not always agree. We might attribute something to be wrongly marked and it still makes a huge price, so people do not always agree with what we are saying. Fine, they can take a different view on that. But we would tend towards the cautious side if we did not wholly believe the piece or we believed there was something that was questionable about it.

T.N.—If the buyer has some serious doubts about a certain piece bought at auction what would you advise him or her to do?

H.H-S.—We would ask the buyer to get two expert written opinions and then we would have a discussion about it. Sometimes we can convince someone that we are right and have the proof but there was not enough time to include it in the catalogue as the information was found afterwards, etc. They may then feel we have a strong argument and agree with it, so are happy to own the piece.

T.N.—You are definitely willing to sit down with someone who owns a piece and discuss it?

H.H-S.—I am always happy to do that. But if someone has doubts about a piece and is wanting to take use of our guarantee then they need to do something for that. It is not just a case of saying they don’t like it anymore.

T.N.—That is understood—it is a question of whether a piece is right or wrong. I would also like to ask why your price for Chinese zitan furniture is enormous with an estimate of HK$6-8 million?

H.H-S.—I don’t agree with you. This zitan long table (Lot 88) when it sold previously in 1994 at Sotheby’s New York made a world record for any example of Chinese furniture. So it was more expensive than any huanghuali examples. Subsequent to that we have had the “Renaissance” sale and several other huanghuali sales where examples of furniture have made significantly more than that.

T.N.—I can agree that it is an Imperial piece. I have seen enough zitan furniture from the Imperial court to confirm that. I was also wondering how you know the Yuan cinnabar lacquer dish (Lot 93) is so early?

H.H-S.—Again there are quite a few books on these pieces and this type. That one is quite well known. It is not in very good condition. In fact it has been restored and cleaned so it looks bright. Like porcelain, lacquer gets dirty with age and can be cleaned up.

T.N.—Although Julian Thompson was unable to come to Hong Kong, can you tell me why you were so happy with the results?

H.H-S.—We made over HK$130 million in a sale of 159 lots. We have been saving pieces and really working hard towards producing something with impact for our 30th anniversary. We held a successful sale with results over 50 per cent above our plan. There were quite a few pieces that did not sell but that is a feature of the market. You end up with ten people chasing one lot. People do tend to focus on certain things. No longer is there the professional second or third generation dealer who sits through and knows the sale record so well that if something is going cheap he will buy because he knows that. This is one of the reasons why not all the pieces sell.

T.N.—How do you see the trend for sale of works of art of a less or second rank?

H.H-S.—They are much more difficult to sell.

T.N.—You should not I think just have auctions catering to the very rich people. You should also cater to the professional people. What will be the trend now?

H.H-S.—What we are now seeing is that professional people may be unable to buy at the very top. But they will save up and rather than buying five medium quality pieces they would rather buy one top end piece. So increasingly there is pressure on the very top end and that is one of the reasons why we see the differential between perfect pieces and slightly damaged pieces is coming down. If you want a top-quality piece and you cannot afford a perfect one then you have to buy one with a little crack or tiny chip or something like that. The result is the prices of those have gone up. Such pieces might have been described as second rank before but they are first rank pieces with some damage. Now these are becoming quite expensive but it is not entirely true that the second rank is not performing so well, it’s just which area of the second rank you choose.

T.N.—It seems to me collectors now have to be satisfied with a lower quality in terms of condition of works of art. I notice a lot of people are willing to buy at high prices pieces that are broken and repaired, and I think this is wrong.

H.H-S.—It is difficult as this is the way the market is going. Up to the 1990s the trend was if the piece was damaged then forget it. Really the difference was huge. If you look at our estimates you will see we tend to discount things quite a lot for damage and they are often the ones that perform rather well in the auctions. People are willing to pay for first class pieces that are damaged. Second class pieces with damage are very difficult to sell. Second class pieces that are perfect are probably less easy to sell than first class pieces with damage.
Actually if you put damaged second class pieces in a different auction then the result may be different. For example, in London the prices for damaged pieces was astonishing. So it does depend where you sell pieces. We used to have four hundred lots in a sale and one of the things we are trying to do already with this most recent sale is focus on the very top.

T.N.—So what is the future of Sotheby’s? I know that as well as your responsibilities in Hong Kong, China and Southeast Asia you are now also in charge of Sotheby’s in Australia.

H.H-S.—One of the things I have been trying to do, since taking over responsibility of Australia is to work together as a team and pick up the telephone on a regular basis and talk. It makes a lot of sense from a time zone point of view. That is something we have been trying to do to make Australia more part of the worldwide team through being close to the Asian team. That is already working very well as there is an extremely able man in charge of Australia. He is called Mark Fraser and we appointed him in May this year.

T.N.—What are his responsibilities?

H.H-S.—He is managing director of Sotheby’s Australia and that includes New Zealand.

T.N.—Do you think there will be better prospects of Asian art being auctioned in that part of the world?

H.H-S.—No, I think it is a very different market. In fact you and your magazine almost pioneered that through your last saleroom news report on Aboriginal art which is truly unique to Australia. What I hope to see is Australians bringing their art to the international market rather than expecting Australians to collect Chinese art. Within Asia, as the economic situation improves I am very hopeful that we will see increased buying in our own auctions we hold in Hong Kong, Singapore or Australia, and in other parts of the world. The Chinese auctions in the rest of the world attract a lot of buyers from Asia, but equally the Impressionist auctions attract buyers and sellers from Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong and we hope increasingly from China.

T.N.—Going back to Chinese arts, where can you really have a chance to discover wonderful pieces? How do you know where to find them?

H.H-S—Well it is quite difficult because they were dispersed so long ago. The emperors tended to give very liberal gifts and presents. There were other times such as when Sir Percival David bought a whole section of the Imperial ceramic collection, when pieces were dispersed around the world. So over that length of time the pieces have become “lost” much like the bowl that we have here. It is very difficult to trace them again unless by chance or by hard work.

T.N.—Do you still think Japan is one of your top areas to discover good things?

H.H-S.—Absolutely. In terms of our turnover in recent years Japan has been very important, but I would not say it is number one in terms of sourcing material. It is difficult to say off the top of my head, but things we find come from all over the world. For example the famous peach vase which was a lamp came from the USA. That is what we do as an international auction house. We are able to source things around the world and bring them to the optimum market for the piece.

T.N.—Are you concerned that with rich mainland Chinese collectors purchasing more pieces they may not resurface on the market?

H.H-S.—No. The Japanese also always swore they were never going to sell anything. I don’t think that will be a particular concern but we do see interests changing. For instance, back in the 1950s the Americans and English were collecting really strongly jades, Song ceramics, early wares and those sorts of things. Anything late was not very much wanted. Now it has sort of turned on its head, though we have seen Song ceramics coming back again. Things once sneered at, such as Qing famille-rose pieces, are now the most sought-after. So the market swings and ebbs and flows and I think it will continue to do that.

T.N.—Before I leave I also want to congratulate you on appointing people for your Sotheby’s New York department of Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art. So do you think next year’s Sotheby’s New York Spring sale will have some “goodies”?

H.H-S—Well Robin Dean, head of the Indian and Southeast Asian department in New York, understands the market very well. He has been in the auction business before and he has been a dealer. My understanding from him is that he already has some very interesting pieces. But obviously it is a bit of a building exercise. We have retained the services of David Weldon who is widely respected for his knowledge in this huge field.

T.N.—The New York Asian auctions have been going down for two years now so how are you going to address this?

H.H-S.—Edward Wilkinson was actually doing a very good job in Southeast Asian and there were certain elements about the market that made it quite difficult. When he decided to leave he actually told us after the last sale, so obviously we did not have a sale this autumn. It would have been much preferable to have a new person in place, but it is most important to have the right people placed and be patient in choosing the right people in our team. And certainly through my knowledge of Robin, I think he is going to be quite impressive.

T.N.—Sotheby’s New York needs a lot of hard work to return their Asian art sales to their former splendour.

H.H-S.—I have no doubt we will get there.

T.N.—But you are so busy. How will you find time to devote yourself to the New York sales?

H.H-S.—Well in terms of helping provide materials I work this part of the world with Nicolas. I have a team in London who go around Europe often and a team in America who go around America a lot. As an international auction house we send things to where the market is strongest. So I send quite an amount to London and New York and that will continue.

T.N.—How do you feel about the new law coming into effect in England stating pieces should be sold with proper provenance. Will it affect your auction house at all?

H.H-S.—Our internal policies and the fact that we have a special department to deal with compliance issues mean that we are already very careful in what we do. So I hope we will not see any significant change.

T.N.—I am glad. Will it affect dealers?

H.H-S.—I don’t feel I should comment for the dealers. They may very well be as careful as we are.

T.N.—The auction houses’ relationships with dealers appear to have been much closer fifteen years ago. What do you think?

H.H-S.—I would say our relationship with dealers is still very close. The auction houses and dealers are a very important part of the way the whole market works. Neither is exclusive and we do everything we can to keep the relationship with dealers very close.
The thing that is different is there are a lot more private people, possibility of the Internet and the wider availability of catalogues. The wider availability of knowledge means more people are prepared to come to us direct whereas previously they may have been more inclined to go to dealers. We have not turned our backs on the dealers in any way. We still remain very engaged and many are close friends and quite a few are close former colleagues.

T.N.—Dealers say when the collectors see similar pieces at galleries they are not willing to pay the prices, while at auction they are willing to pay much higher prices.

H.H-S.—There are examples in both directions. It cuts both ways.

T.N.—Some dealers complain that the auction houses are taking away their business. They do think that way.

H.H-S.—I think the Asian Art in London experience is very interesting. Where the dealers, auction houses and indeed the restorers and all the other people said, “Why are we squabbling amongst ourselves? This is silly. Why not work together to create a more exciting market?” That is exactly what happened and the result is a very exciting week.

T.N.—This year during Asian Art in London there seem to have been fewer Americans, Europeans and Asians attending compared with previous years. Is that so?

H.H-S.—Maybe there were fewer Americans but that has been a feature of this whole war in Iraq and terrorist thing. It has nothing to do with the art of course, but to counteract that there has been a huge increase in Asian buyers. Several Asian buyers who had not bought that much for some time competed very strongly in our own auctions recently. In fact for the Muwentang Collection sale of Chinese Song ceramics in London there were also four private American collectors bidding in the Sotheby’s auction room.

T.N.—In that sense do you still think the Asian Art in London activities will continue next year?

H.H-S.—Absolutely. I think it is tremendous and a very vigorous and vibrant event.

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