June 12, 2010

The unofficial repatriation of Chinese artefacts

Posted at 10:05 pm in Similar cases

In recent years, as the buying power of wealthy Chinese has increased, many have been buying back their countries heritage from abroad as it comes up for sale at auctions. This is repatriation in a sense, although in many cases it is likely that it will be heading back to another private collection rather than enriching the public domain. There have also been similar moves to return artefacts on a more organised basis as well however.


Jade for joy
How to satisfy the insatiable demand from mainland China
Apr 28th 2010 | From The Economist online

AS DEMAND for Chinese works of art continues to rise—with the top of the market nowhere in sight—the supply of top-quality pieces is becoming increasingly rare. Dealers and auction houses in all the major centres, from New York to Hong Kong, all repeat the same refrain: it is getting harder to find stock.

Persuading collectors to part with their treasures takes skill. After first identifying who owns what, dealers or auction houses must then convince these owners that the time is right to sell. Yet if the market is strong, why shouldn’t owners wait? Prices will only rise.

Even if a collector is willing to sell, every dealer or auction house will be competing for the contract. Winning a consignment takes patience, hard work and luck. But those who work hard tend to make their own luck.

Take John Axford.

Mr Axford is head of the Asia department in a small provincial English auction house called Woolley & Wallis, in the southern town of Salisbury. A year ago, he offered for auction a Qianlong-period green jade buffalo that belonged to Lady Diana Miller, daughter of the 5th Earl of Yarborough. The buffalo had lain in a bank vault since the Battle of Britain in 1940 and was still wrapped in wartime newspaper when Mr Axford saw it for the first time.

The internet has done much to change the auction business. No longer do small country auction houses have to languish in obscurity. Good photographs posted on the web now reach potential buyers all over the world.

On the day of the sale last May, Woolley’s auction room was full of bidders who had made the journey from London, and even from as far afield as Hong Kong and mainland China. Bidding for the buffalo opened at £150,000 ($230,000) and rose to £3.4m (£4.2m including commission and taxes). The buyer was Daniel Eskenazi, the son of London’s pre-eminent dealer in Chinese treasures, who was bidding on behalf of Bruno Eberli, a Swiss foreign-exchange specialist based in New York. The sale brought Mr Axford considerable publicity. The 88-year-old Lady Diana was delighted, and resolved to buy herself a racehorse.

Over the past five years, sales of Chinese treasures have become increasingly dominated by buyers from the mainland who are keen to repatriate national art works. Every week sees a fresh flow of works to China from old European and American collections. Mr Axford is now planning another sale on May 19th. Lady Diana’s family has consigned a further 43 pieces from the earl’s collection (though none as important as the jade buffalo), and Mr Axford has managed to persuade two other collectors that the time is right for them to sell their works.

The first, an elderly English collector in Monaco, was persuaded to use Mr Axford’s firm by an agent who had seen the success Woolley & Wallis had with Lady Diana’s buffalo. This collector had bought many of his pieces from Spink & Son, a once-important London firm that no longer deals in oriental art. Luckily he had kept his receipts (provenance is important), for today Spink’s archive belongs to Christie’s, which denies other auction houses access to its papers.

This collector consigned six important pieces, including a rare pale jade boulder carving with an inscription. Estimated to fetch £20,000-30,000, the piece has already elicited considerable interest from mainland China.

Mary Anna Marten’s consignment was on another scale altogether. The chatelaine of Crichel House in Dorset, which her family had owned since the mid-18th-century, Mrs Marten was the owner of an important collection of Chinese treasures, many of them bought by her father before the second world war. Mr Axford had displayed considerable acumen in marketing two of her pieces in his sale last year. A carved spinach-jade piece, known as the Buchanan-Jardine brushpot, sold for £460,000—nearly four times its top estimate—and a Chinese imperial spinach-jade bi disc fetched £290,000, more than ten times its pre-sale estimate.

At the end of last year Mrs Marten decided to sell a pair of jade elephants that had once stood in Emperor Qianlong’s throne room. Then in January she died. Her executors took the opportunity to dispose of nine more pieces, but they insisted that Mr Axford’s firm, Woolley & Wallis, pitch for the contract in competition with Christie’s.

Mr Axford proposed to market the collection in Taiwan, an important collecting centre, as well as at the main art fair in southern China and the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht (TEFAF). He has advertised the collection in specialised magazines, including Arts of Asia, Orientations and Chinese Art News, known as CANs magazine. He also promised to show the pieces in a gallery next to Christie’s in London during the week of Asian sales in mid-May, as he did with Lady Diana’s jade buffalo.

The executors were impressed and happy to offer the consignment to someone whose work had pleased Mrs Marten during her lifetime. They chose nine pieces, including the jade elephants and a rare imperial white jade bell of which only three others are known to exist. The estimates for both lots are £200,000, but Mr Axford hopes they might fetch a seven-figure price. If they do, other collectors will be happy to follow the lead set by Lady Diana and Mrs Marten.

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1 Comment »

  1. Jing Daily said,

    06.14.10 at 4:16 pm

    It’s hard to say whether most artifacts purchased by Chinese collectors will end up in private collections rather than public venues. Some “super-collectors” like Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian have hinted that they hope to open their own museums in order to give the public access to these items. It seems that high-profile intellectuals and art critics in China like Li Xianting have these collectors’ ears. Could be a good thing for arts education in China. Then again, it’s always hard to tell what these collectors’ intentions are.

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