LONDON — In the art market as in war, the worst danger is often unexpected. Professionals dreaded the decline of demand in the current recessionary gloom and it did not happen. The market is as bullish as ever. It is the drying up of supplies that is threatening to cause havoc.
The latest sales of Asian and Middle Eastern art demonstrated that the problem now affects all areas of the market. Buyers pounce on art — when there is something to pounce on.
On March 18 and 19, the New York auctions of Chinese art at Christie’s ended in resounding triumph. Part of the vast collections built up by Arthur M. Sackler were among the offerings. The finest works had been donated to the museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, founded in Washington by the late collector. What remained in family hands was a mixed assortment of some extremely fine pieces and a large contingent of middle-of-the-road works covering the whole range of Chinese art, from Shang bronzes of the 12th century B.C. to Qing porcelain of the 19th century.
Miraculously, bidders wanted nearly all of the above, spending $10.87 million on 198 of the 199 lots in a historic session unique in Chinese art market annals for this 99.5 percent success rate.
A Shang bronze vessel bought from the New York dealer Frank Caro on Aug. 26, 1964, thus tripled the estimate at $182,500. Rarities triggered frantic competition.
A white marble bodhisattva of the seventh or eighth century A.D. made $110,500, despite visible damage, and a large stele with a standing bodhisattva in high relief also tripled expectations at $1.72 million. Frank Caro, again, had sold it to Mr. Sackler back in 1961.
Porcelain and bronzes from the estate of Walter Hochstadter, a connoisseur who had started collecting in the 1920s, aroused the same enthusiasm. A Song vase of the 10th or 11th century A.D. of a rare type with its stylized blossoms deeply carved through the ivory-white slip shot up to $194,500. On its previous appearance at Christie’s New York on June 5, 1986, it had cost Hochstadter $55,000.
The most telling indicator of the very rosy outlook for the Chinese art market was the massive participation of dealers from mainland China and Hong Kong. They sent a polychrome vase of the Yongzheng period (1723-1735) of exceptional quality skyrocketing to $1.81 million, 10 times the estimate. True, that had an irresistible virtue in Chinese eyes. The vessel was clearly made as a match to a virtually identical piece (it is half an inch, or 1.2 centimeters, shorter) now in the Palace Museum in Beijing, which gave it the aura of imperial provenance.
As the spotlight switched to London where Christie’s was holding a sale of “Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds” on March 31, the paucity of goods was painfully obvious and only 140 of the 237 lots found takers, realizing a total £2.46 million, or $3.94 million. This failure rate did not reflect a lack of eagerness from would-be buyers, but only the scarcity of anything desirable. Extremely modest items sold brilliantly for what they were. A page with a quatrain of Persian Sufi poetry calligraphed by a famous Iranian master of the late 16th and early 17th century was probably ripped off some album decades ago. It cost £4,750, nearly double the estimate. For a leaf suffering from damage, this was quite an achievement.
The performance of the two star lots was astounding. These were 16th-century leaves from an album of Ottoman calligraphy said to have belonged to Sultan Bayezid. Cropped close to the framing lines, the calligraphic pages had been shorn of their original margins and pasted onto the leaves of a crudely assembled album, together with other cut out fragments carrying Persian poems. Whether the magnificent calligraphy in the Sulus script belongs to the same page as the fragments with Persian poems is a moot question. But dazzled by the splendid Ottoman calligraphy on one page that reproduces the beginning of the Koranic chapter of Light (Surat an-Nur), bidders ran it up to £289,250, or 12 times Christie’s high estimate.
Had there been more works matching this level of aesthetic achievement, this auction too would have been a triumph.
Such is the scarcity of high quality art that departmental heads easily succumb to the temptation of conceding to profit-seeking consignors huge estimates, with assorted reserves. When inexperienced newcomers jump in, it sometimes works. At other times, it does not. An Iranian bronze ewer of the eighth century A.D., extremely fine but severely corroded, and two 14th-century Mamluk basins missing their silver inlay fell victims to this auction poker game.
The other temptation to which auction houses give in when seeking to fill their catalogs is recycling objects with revised descriptions. A bronze falcon featured in Christie’s catalog as “North India or Deccan, 17th century” had recently appeared at a Drouot auction conducted in Paris by Jean-Marie Delvaux on Dec. 17. Christie’s did not mention the auction, where it brought ˆ13,838, or roughly $18,338. At Drouot the bird was prudently given a broad “17th-18th century” date, no doubt because of the crudeness of the incised detail. Christie’s estimate, £20,000 to £30,000, plus 25 percent charge, left it no chance. The bird did not fly.
A day later, it was Sotheby’s turn to recycle an item and rewrite its description. The auction house noted in its catalog that an enameled glass vessel, now seen by its specialists as a “bucket or finger bowl, Syria or Egypt, 14th century,” was the same object that Christie’s had sold on Dec. 14, 2000, as “Probably France, second half 19th century.”
Asked in a telephone interview about his reaction to Christie’s characterization of the beaker, Edward Gibbs, Sotheby’s head of the Islamic department, said that he felt that it was “fairly anecdotal” and that they were “most concerned about the remarks made by [G.] Schmoranz in his book on “Old Oriental gilt and enamel glass vessels” (published in London in 1899).
In 2003 the British independent scholar Rachel Ward, formerly of the British Museum, had reassigned the vessel to the 14th century, a view adopted by Sotheby’s. The presence of lapis lazuli in the enamel used in 13th-century Mamluk glass but never in European glass was among the arguments cited to support the attribution to a Near Eastern workshop. Mrs. Ward noted that the method of fabrication, of the type described by Bill Gudenrath, was consistent with that provenance. And the analyses of the body glass and enamel by Julian Henderson from Nottingham University likewise show them to be “consistent with a fourteenth-century Middle Eastern object.”
Sotheby’s catalog states that all the decorative motifs can be paralleled on Mamluk glass. But the crude handling of the animal heads carried by the volutes of the “animated scroll” and of the heraldic lines in the roundels is astonishing.
The problem is that 19th-century glass-makers seeking to imitate the past perhaps knew more about medieval techniques than we give them credit for and definitely less about early styles than we do nowadays. And their use of Arabic epigraphy could be imperfect.
The rigid shape of the vessel with its thick projecting molding below the lip, the curious pattern with roundels oddly placed under the calligraphic frieze and the style of the epigraphy which does not look Mamluk speak in favor of Christie’s late dating.
These days, however, collectors find so little to get their teeth into that they readily jump at any perceived opportunity to catch a rarity. The “Mamluk” vessel estimated by Christie’s in 2000 to be worth £6,000 to £8,000 and bought at the time for £75,250 cost its latest buyer £1.55 million. Here, as at Christie’s, there was a heavy failure rate which hit 124 out of 267 lots. While the forthcoming London and New York auctions of Old Masters and Impressionist and Modern paintings do not raise such thorny issues, the pickings look as meager as in the “Islamic World” sales.
If this goes on, the art of China will become the only serious game in town, establishing an eerie parallel between the art market and the broader economy.