Thursday, October 27, 2011

More 'loot' from the Beijing Summer Palace at Salisbury auction in November

Not my word, but that of the man who looted it.

The fine and rare Chinese Qing dynasty Imperial gilt metal box (shown left), appearing at Woolley & Wallis's November 16 sale of Asian Art, bears an inscription — "Loot from the Summer Palace, Pekin, Oct. 1860. Capt. James Gunter, King's Dragoon Guards."

Rarely does colonial booty declare itself with such proud candour. The box is estimated to make £50,000-80,000 and is just one of half a dozen lots at this Part I sale that requires prospective bidders to register and provide financial guarantees and deposits prior to the sale. (There is still some caution in auction circles despite rumours that Bainbridge's Qing vase account has finally been settled).

Another item likely to get Asian pulses racing is a rare Chinese celadon jade seal of the Empress Xiaoyiren (right) which is estimated to fetch £500,000-800,000, but how does one estimate such a thing?

For the time being Chinese mainland collectors remain preoccupied with securing from Western collections examples of Imperial jades and porcelains, some of which were legitimately acquired during the eighteenth century, but many of which (like the box referred to above) were looted during the era of colonial confrontation.

By contrast, Chinese dealers and collectors have yet to catch on to mark and period Export Porcelain — those wares made and decorated specifically for export to Europe and elsewhere.

However, it is a widely held belief in the relevant European and North American trade and collecting communities that this will eventually change. It is not a matter of if, but when the Chinese will recognise export wares — but that 'when' could turn out to be sooner than many expect. And it may be when the store of imperial objects from European collections dries up.

Recent auctions in the UK — even those held in the British provinces — have demonstrated the lengths to which Chinese dealers and collectors will travel — and indeed how high they are prepared to bid — to secure imperial wares. Their buying power has now reached a level at which few Western dealers can compete, as the recent May sales of Asian Art at Duke's in Dorchester and Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury made clear.

Equally notable is the quantity of such material now being secured by provincial firms. Not so very long ago, most significant consignments of real quality would have been destined for London hammers. Yet firms like Duke's and Woolley & Wallis have demonstrated that they can offer as efficient and expert a service as their London counterparts and often at more competitive rates.

The next opportunity to test the market — and the to gauge the extent to which the Chinese and other Asian buyers remain active bidders for such material — comes in mid-November when Woolley & Wallis mount three sales. On 15 November they will offer around 360 lots of Yixing Zisha wares, including items from the Arthur J. Harris collection of Yixing teapots. This was doubtless prompted by the success of Woolley & Wallis's last Asian Art sale back on 18 May this year when a small selection of the distinctive and characterful Yixing red stoneware teapots from the Arthur J. Harris Collection performed encouragingly well.

The example illustrated (left), estimated at £1,200-1,800, fetched £105,000, one of a host of examples that roundly demolished its pre-sale forecast.

These little stoneware teapots are not just beautiful and historically interesting works of art. Woolley & Wallis inform us that the Yixing unglazed stoneware actually enhances the taste and olfactory pleasures of the tea brewed within. In fact many believe one should never wash a Yixing teapot but simply rinse it. We're led to believe that over time the red ware body absorbs so much of the tea's natural character that one can even brew a pot of tea without using any tea leaves. I'm not sure the Irish would buy that.

In economic terms, it goes without saying that Yixing wares have proved a superb investment for collectors like Arthur Harris, but anyone who has assembled a quality collection of Kangxi or Qianlong mark and period export porcelain is also likely to be quids in when the Chinese eventually come round to understanding it.

It is perhaps a measure of its basic rarity that there are no significant export wares included in Woolley & Wallis's Asian Art Part 1 sale on 16 November (nor indeed in Part II on 17 November). Imperial wares, on the other hand, are plentiful. It will be interesting to see how many Asian buyers are present on sale day.