With growing demand and a profusion of fakes in China, the best place to find Chinese art today is the U.S.
Christie’s expects bidders to compete for this 2,000-year-old gilt-bronze figure of a seated bear from the Han dynasty, which hails from the estate of New York dealer Robert Hatfield Ellsworth. The 3-inch-tall bear is estimated to sell for at least $200,000.PHOTO:CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD.
The best place to find Chinese antiques isn’t China. It’s the U.S.
In the world-wide hunt to discover overlooked art trophies to resell to collectors of Asian art, dealers and auctioneers say the first spot they’re eyeing is the American mantelpiece. Carried here by centuries of missionaries, wealthy collectors, importers and immigrants, Chinese artifacts have settled and resurfaced throughout the U.S. in huge numbers compared with the scant amount that remain in China following Mao Zedong’s relic-smashing Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. Now, in a topsy-turvy twist on the global art market, dealers say they’re locating museum-quality Chinese artworks sitting, sometimes little-noticed, in farms in Vermont, shotgun houses in New Orleans and ranches in Montana and Colorado.
Two years ago, Sotheby’s discovered a rare, 1,000-year-old white bowl from the Song dynasty sitting on the mantel of a family home in upstate New York. The amateur collectors had paid $3 for the 5-inch-wide bowl at a garage sale. Sotheby’s resold it on the family’s behalf to London dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi for $2.2 million. In recent years, Christie’s said it has reaped millions reselling Chinese imperial vases that had been converted into lamps and a Yuan-era jar being used as an umbrella stand, the latter of which resold for $27.6 million. “That’s part of the allure of the U.S.,” said Michael Bass, Christie’s international senior specialist for Chinese art. “We all know there’s hidden treasure.”
Starting March 15, the art market’s latest scouring will get tested during New York’s weeklong round of major Asian art sales. U.S. sellers are supplying 80% of Christie’s offerings of neolithic Chinese bronzes, jade figurines, hardwood furniture and porcelain vases. Sotheby’s said the majority of its March auction offerings were also consigned stateside.
With China’s domestic marketplace bedeviled by fakes, Asian clients have come to trust the authenticity of pieces being sold by U.S. collectors, according to David Yu, director of international business development for Beijing-based auction house China Guardian. What’s more, Mr. Yu said mainland buyers often pay a premium for U.S.-sourced work.
Scholarship plays a role. During the second-half of the 20th century when academic study of art was largely forbidden in China, Mr. Yu said a generation of professors and amateur scholars in the U.S. took up the charge and now boast some of the category’s most in-depth catalogs and studies on Chinese art. Baltimore’s International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, a group of private collectors, remains the “best in the world,” he said. And the world’s top private collection of Chinese hardwood furniture, or “huanghuali,” is in Boston as part of the collection of Edward C. Johnson II, founder of Fidelity Investments. Mr. Yu said U.S. scholars have even coined terms to describe Chinese art, like huanghuali, that weren’t indigenous to Chinese culture but are now used by collectors everywhere. As a result, Mr. Yu said his team knows they have a greater chance of bumping into “systematic and better maintained” collections in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world, he added.
In the world-wide hunt to discover overlooked art trophies to resell to collectors of Asian art, dealers and auctioneers say the first spot they’re eyeing is the American mantelpiece. A look at some pieces heading to auction starting March 15.
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Wealthy Asian collectors are willing to pay a premium for pieces that boast a safe-bet ownership history—including pieces that resurface in the U.S. Christie’s will ask at least $200,000 for this Edo-period, six-panel screen, ‘Stable with Fine Horses,’ on March 17. CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD.
Virginia collector Julia Curtis said she had to scour Dutch junk shops and English country houses to buy examples of 17th-century Chinese porcelain like this brush pot. Now, she and her husband John are ‘downsizing’ and reselling it for $100,000 or more at Christie’s. CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD.
Shanghai investor Liu Yiqian paid Christie’s $45 million for this 600-year-old Tibetan tapestry, which the auction house found in the home of a U.S. collector. CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD.
Christie’s expects bidders to compete for this 2,000-year-old gilt-bronze figure of a seated bear from the Han dynasty, which hails from the estate of New York dealer Robert Hatfield Ellsworth. The 3-inch-tall bear is estimated to sell for at least $200,000. CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD.
On March 17, Christie’s will ask at least $2 million for this 13th-century bronze bodhisattva figure of Avalokiteshvara, which comes from the estate of New York dealer Robert Hatfield Ellsworth. CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD.
Chinese artifacts have settled and resurfaced throughout the U.S. in huge numbers compared to the scant amount that remain in China following Mao Zedong’s relic-smashing Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. New York dealer Robert Hatfield Ellsworth bought this red Qing-era vase in 1977; Christie’s expects it to resell for at least $70,000. CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD.
A family in upstate New York paid $3 for this Song-era bowl in a garage sale. Sotheby’s helped the family sell it two years ago to a London dealer for $2.2 million. SOTHEBY’S
A San Francisco family used this 18-inch plate to serve cracked crabs, unaware it was a rare red Ming plate from the 14th century. Bonhams helped the family sell it for $5.7 million, three times its high estimate. BONHAMS
Sotheby’s said it gets the majority of its New York sale offerings for Asian art from U.S. sellers—including Shitao’s 'Flowers, Vegetables and Landscapes,' which carries an $800,000 to $1.2 million estimate. SOTHEBY’S
After Bonhams sold a blue-and-white Yongzheng-era vase for $5.9 million, a U.S. collector called to say they had a similar object at home. Bonhams sold the second vase, shown, for $9.8 million last fall. BONHAMS
Christie’s is asking at least $30,000 for this late 19th-century silk rug adorned with nine dragons and a character inscription that translates to ‘The Palace of Heavenly Purity.’ Dealer Robert Hatfield Ellsworth displayed it in his 22-room, Fifth Avenue apartment. CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD.
Sotheby’s met a Long Island, N.Y., family using this Ming dynasty vase from the early 1400s as a doorstop a couple years ago. The house helped resell the moonflask for $1.3 million.SOTHEBY’S
Last year, a third of the pieces offered during China Guardian’s Hong Kong sales came from U.S. sellers, amounting to roughly $30 million in art sales. Several times a year, China Guardian dispatches its specialists on scouting trips, called sweeps, to U.S. cities from San Francisco to New York. Go to Wichita Auctioneers, and its offerings may surprise: The auction house has shifted its base from Kansas to New York, where it primarily handles classical Chinese art, thanks to a steady supply of goods found in the U.S. and a new Chinese owner.
In a bid to slow the looting of antiquities, China restricts the export of most cultural relics created in the country more than 250 years ago, which means Chinese dealers can only sell these older pieces to collectors who agree to keep them in China. The loophole: Pieces that left China before the ban was strengthened in 2009 can still circulate widely.
Dessa Goddard, director of Asian art for Bonhams North America, said works of art that can claim an ownership history stretching from China to the U.S. appeal to collectors from China seeking hassle-free, safe-bet authentication. “Having an American provenance creates a great deal of comfort and reassurance for buyers,” she said. “It can add multiples to the work’s value.”
Take the copper-red glazed Ming plate dating from the 14th century Hongwu period that Ms. Goddard saw sitting on the sideboard of a family home in San Francisco a decade ago. The owners were told their ancestor, Elinor Majors Carlisle, traveled to China using a fortune amassed in part by her father, who helped found the Pony Express in the 1860s. The Carlisle heirs were using the 18-inch-wide plate she brought home as a souvenir to serve up cracked crabs, but Ms. Goddard convinced them it was “special.” The plate, decorated with peony blossoms, was estimated to sell for up to $2 million. It sold for $5.7 million. “Collectors want a good back story,” she added.
Historically, art migrates around the world as fashions and fortunes wax and wane. Yet the U.S.’s ties to Chinese art stretch back to its early settlers. British and Dutch traders and colonists who arrived in the New World in the 17th century often brought along their blue-and-white porcelain from China rather than eat on pricier pewter plates or splintery wood. Archaeologists have found hundreds of china potsherds in the river basins near the former colony of Jamestown, Va. During the 19th century, U.S. missionaries to China often returned home packing palm-size jades and figurines as souvenirs, said New York dealer Spencer Throckmorton. Later, business tycoons like J.P. Morgan could afford to send agents to travel to the Far East and bring home crateloads of art. World’s fairs helped the masses in Chicago and elsewhere regard Chinese art as something exotic but attainable.
As wars and political conflicts roiled China throughout the 20th century, the country’s scholarly classes started dispersing their holdings—with one son getting a few vases and another getting jades—before fleeing the country for good. As a result, second- and third-generation heirs living in the U.S. don’t always know the historical merits of their one-off heirlooms, said Mr. Bass at Christie’s.
The surge of wealthy collectors in China has done much to reverse this Chinese export system over the past decade. Chinese buyers earned an international reputation by paying steep prices for Chinese artifacts at auction and bringing them home, sometimes for patriotic reasons. Last fall, investor Liu Yiqian, who opened the private Long Museum in Shanghai, paid Christie’s $45 million for a 600-year-old Tibetan tapestry that the house discovered in an undisclosed U.S. collection. A few months before that, he paid Sotheby’s $36.3 million for a tiny, porcelain cup decorated with a chicken. Currently, China is navigating an economic slowdown and art sales have tapered off from a couple of years ago, but Asia’s purchasing power cannot be ignored: Asian buyers still represent 27% of Christie’s global clientele, and the auction house sold $844 million of Asian art last year. Sotheby’s said it sold $794.7 million in Asian art last year, up from $701.7 million five years ago. China Guardian, one of dozens of auction houses throughout China, had sales last year of $940 million, most of it Asian art.
Chinese collectors have also started rejiggering their shopping habits, taking a closer look at Western art and storing more of their art holdings outside China. Mr. Throckmorton said more wealthy Chinese prefer to display their art prizes in second homes around the world, from Vancouver to New York to Paris. The strategy helps solidify their status as global sophisticates, but it also encourages them to shop for and display their art finds broadly, instead of shipping everything back to China.
All of it is compelling dealers and auctioneers to cast a wider net across the U.S. in hopes of spotting the Next Great Vase. China Guardian places ads showing top sellers that say, “Sourced in the U.S., Sold in China” in Chinese-language newspapers before its experts visit cities like San Francisco. (A recent ad shows a Qing dynasty vase it found in the U.S. home of a rare book collector that it resold for $8 million.) Last month, it sent a team to sit in a San Francisco hotel conference room and appraise up to 400 pieces brought in by the public, “Antiques Roadshow”-style, over a weekend. A few weeks later, a different set of experts did the same thing in New York, only in its new office branch. Less than 10% of the pieces seen in this wild-card scenario are worth resale, Mr. Yu said, “but if one out of even 100 pieces meets our standards, it’s worthwhile.”
Ms. Goddard at Bonhams said her house has several regional representatives around the U.S. who send her tips on collectors with sizable Chinese collections so she can arrange visits. She said sellers often call her after a big sale to say they have a similar object at home. Christie’s said its experts are trained to snap cellphone images of anything Chinese-looking whenever they’re doing estate appraisals so their peers in the Asian art department can see if the pieces look genuine or seem historic. Mr. Throckmorton in New York tracks sales at small, boutique auction houses throughout the country because on occasion “they’ll unearth good stuff,” he said.
Once the objects are found, these market makers do whatever they can to play up the pieces’ American ties. Christie’s, which is selling the $35-million estate of Asian art dealer Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, took VIP collectors on tours through his 22-room Fifth Avenue apartment. The auction house is devoting an evening sale, usually reserved for marquee sales, to hundreds of the late dealer’s pieces—a first for a Christie’s sale of Asian art in New York. Five years ago, Henry Howard-Sneyd, vice chairman of Sotheby’s North America, revived the auction house’s Chinese paintings sale in New York, shrugging off suggestions he send such pieces to sales in Hong Kong. He said the twice-a-year Chinese paintings sales totals in New York have grown fivefold in value since that time, to $31 million last fall.
Oddly, U.S. collectors of Asian art are less impressed by a local tie-in. Bill Carey, president of a consortium of investors called Xiling Group who have bought $97 million in Asian art, said the group refuses to buy pieces sourced in China, for fear of breaking the export laws, buying a fake or something looted from a burial site. However, the group won’t pay a premium for U.S. sourced works. John Ford, treasurer of Baltimore’s snuff bottle society, said he won’t pay more for pieces from the U.S., either. “Having a U.S. provenance only matters to people who feel insecure, but I know my bottles,” Mr. Ford said.
In the late 1970s, Virginia collector and art scholar Julia Curtis picked her way through Dutch junk shops and English country houses seeking pieces of Chinese porcelain to buy. Now, she and her husband, John, say their home is overcrowded and they need to downsize. They also feel like the market for Chinese art has grown crowded—and expensive. That’s why the couple put up 95 examples of 17th century Chinese porcelain in Christie’s March 16 sale, including a large blue-and-white pot for holding calligraphy brushes that dates to the Chongzhen period, or roughly 1640. It’s estimated to sell for at least $100,000.
Ms. Curtis said she asked Christie’s to sell their porcelain in New York, but she agreed to let the house preview a few highlights in Hong Kong beforehand to drum up interest. “That’s where the pots started, after all,” she said.