2015 : March Notes From An Appraiser

I was in New York City for Asia Week 2015 March 13- 21, with hundreds of other Asian Art enthusiasts. There were special exhibitions all over the city, at private galleries and museums, as well as numerous auctions at Bonham’s, Christie’s and Sotheby’s. It has been a visible feast.

The most exciting event I attended was Christie’s March 17th evening sale of some of the top pieces from the Robert Hatfield Ellsworth Collection, regarded as the most prestigious and largest private collection of Asian art to be auctioned.

The auction room was corded off for around 20 standing press, and then chairs for the hundreds of people in the room. The collection included material across all areas of Asian Art including Indian, Himalayan, Southeast Asian, Chinese, and Japanese art. There were no reserves, and all 57 lots sold for a total of just over $61 million. The sale started at 6:00 p.m. and ended three hours later.

The first item was a small gilt-bronze figure of a seated bear, Western Han Dynasty (206 BC), with an opening bid of $140,000. There were twenty people tending the phone bidding and several spotters pointing out the bidders. After reaching the high estimate of $300,000 within a few seconds, an individual shouted out one million, and the competition hardly slowed. The small gold bear sold to the individual who had shouted out the one million, but for a hammer price of $2.4 million. The room broke into applause, and the auction continued with the room full of hungry bidders.

“The real excitement of the evening arrived when a battle broke out between a man standing in the room and two bidders on the telephone over a large and important gilt-bronze figure of Avalokiteshvara from Nepal, circa 13th century “ wrote Liza Muhlfeld in an article posted on blouinartinfo.com. “The opening bid started at $1 million before leaping to $6 million, then to $7 million — until eventually, a telephone bidder secured the piece for $8,229,000, setting an auction record for a Nepalese sculpture.”

A mainland Chinese man sitting in front of me opened the bidding on four huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs of the Ming Dynasty (17th century) with furious bidding among several in the room, internet and phones, quickly passing the high estimate of $1.2 million with the hammer price of $8.5 million, with premium $9,685,000 — a record for huanghuali furniture. Again the auction house broke out in applause with all craning their necks to see the winning bidder. A few minutes later the same gentleman bought two other late Ming Dynasty huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs for just over $2.6 million.

Over the next four days the entire art collection was auctioned including his desk, silver and other personal effects and furniture. Something I had interest in was a small rectangular orange and green striped pottery vessel from Ellsworth’s desk, Japanese, mid 20th century. The estimate was $600-$800, and I reasoned since Japanese art is slow to sell, maybe I could be the winning bidder. Not so, with the hammer price of $5,000. This was an example of provenance being the most important value characteristic.