Twenty-something UK regional auctioneers and four container loads of Western antiques en route to south-east China. What could possibly go wrong?
There were stomach bugs. There were the taxi
and teahouse scams. And large swathes of the cargo will soon be
But if the intention of this unlikely
odyssey - its protagonists the 21 members of the recently-formed
Association of Accredited Auctioneers (Triple-A) - was to establish
whether or not the Chinese could become a force in the market for
traditional European chattels, then the project yielded valuable
data. And the answer to that question first posed around a Beijing
boardroom table last June was an unequivocal yes.
China's First Free Port Auction of
Western Artworks held in Xiamen in Fujian province last
month was not a success in the traditional sense.
More than three-quarters of the 360 lots
failed to find buyers in the saleroom (there was some after-sale
business to be done) and the total just shy of £1m was way short of
the headline figure of £8m mooted when the project was launched in
The revenues from the sale were sufficient
for the dozen underwriters - here on a win-together, lose-together
basis - to hope to break even on the project, but no one got rich
But there are many other ways in judging the
success of a pioneering event such as this.
Above: 'China's First Free Port Auction of
Western Artworks'was conducted in the glamour-free surroundings of
the Xangyu Bonded Logistics Park in Xiamen. A team of stand-fitters
and a number of UK auctioneers worked around the clock to transform
a warehouse space into a site worthy of the first sale of Western
antiques in China.
As a marketing exercise designed to promote
both British standards of practice and European works of art within
the Chinese market it attracted plenty of media attention. As a
fact-finding mission for Triple-A and their Beijing-based partners,
Huachen Auctions, and the online bidding portal Epailive, it was
probably second-to-none. "Our members participated in the sale to
gauge the appetite Chinese collectors have for Western antiques and
works of art", said Triple-A chairman Chris Ewbank. "Now we know
what is wanted and what is not."
It had been a huge effort. The timescale,
designed to catch the start of the auction season in Beijing, was
verging on the ludicrous and the logistics immense.
Six weeks from the get-go in January to put
together a sale. Another month to send the contents via Alban
Shipping on a slow boat to China and see it through customs. And
just two weeks to promote the sale in Mainland China, first at the
British Ambassador's residence in Beijing where a selection of 50
objects (officially exported into China for a pre-sale viewing)
were on display from Friday, April 12, and then 1308 miles south at
the Xangyu Bonded Logistics Park in Xiamen where most of the
consignments for a 360-lot sale could be imported 'duty-free' prior
It was ambitious at best, but viewing in a
standfitted warehouse opened as planned at 9am on Friday, April 19
and an audience of 100-150 were in attendance when the sale began
at around 2.30pm on Sunday, April 21.
Win, lose or draw, it was always going to be
What, and what not, to bring to economically
vibrant China had always required a leap of faith, but a selection
process of sorts had been carried out prior to shipment via a
blizzard of emails and digital images between Triple-A members and
their partners in Beijing.
Above: to avoid red tape, the Triple-A sale
was conducted in partnership with the Beijing-based Huachen
Auctions, with all consignments imported 'duty-free' to the Xiamen
Free Port until they were sold. This display board in the saleroom
gave an idea of taxes that apply in China when importing works of
art. In addition to the buyer's premium of 15%, all items in this
report were subject to import duty of 17% and additional taxes
should they be under 100 years old.
Based on piecemeal buying reports from the
last 24 months, it was clear that clocks, bronzes and French
furniture, in particular, had already gained some traction in
Accordingly, the core of the sale was
provided by a well-known London dealer in 19th century French
furniture - precisely the type of client who could provide the
calibre of merchandise, the quick turnaround and the sense of
adventure the project required. Vendors were charged what Mr Ewbank
termed "a relatively modest administration fee" that primarily
reflected the cost of shipping.
This demanded that estimates were set close
to retail levels, but punchy guidelines served a kind of purpose.
After all, the underwriters were not moving items half-way round
the world to replicate prices easily achievable in the UK.
This central consignment, a cache of
recognised brand names from Paul Sormani to François Linke,
provided the sale with its financial muscle and did claim its
highest prices - a pair of Louis XVI-style gilt-bronze and amboyna
centre tables by Linke c.1910 sold at RMB2m (£212,750) and an
extraordinary Louis XV-style kingwood and marquetry writing desk
and cartonnier c.1880 at RMB1.2m (£127,650).
There were plenty of failures, too - "pieces
in the £10,000 to £40,000 range were possibly too expensive for
what is very much an emerging market" commented Chris Ewbank - but
it was enough to suggest that the Chinese could become a major
force in the market for blue-chip 19th century French
But if these were the heavyweight entries
then the real headlines were to be found lower down the pecking
order among a far more regulation selection of European chattels -
items such as the RMB35,000 (£3725)
Edwardian painted mahogany centre table.
All three pieces of Victorian burr walnut
(none of them would have been expected to break £1000 in the UK)
found buyers between RMB25,000 (£2650) and RMB40,000 (£4255), as
did half a dozen pieces of Dutch furniture.
Only time will tell if these results
represent a trend. But decent English and Continental cabinetmaking
certainly represents an improvement on the mediocre-quality,
European-style domestic and boardroom furniture that is being
manufactured here for an ever-growing number of Western-style
It was encouraging news for the regional
auctioneer that the strength of the sale was the appetite for
mid-market pieces in this £500 to £5000 range.
Supported by a lecture programme, English
silver was something of a revelation and there were some
surprisingly high prices for 19th century bronzes typified by a
pair of late 19th century Marly horses after the model by Guillaume
Coustou sold to a telephone bidder against plenty of
competition in the room at RMB82,000 (£8725).
An early 19th century equestrian model of
Louis XIV in classical garb riding a rearing horse by Baron
François Joseph Bosio (1768-1845) was a London trade consignment
with an estimate of RMB100,000-120,000. It sold to a gentleman in
the room who bid strongly for all the bronzes, at RMB160,000
Precise figures regarding the number of
buyers at the sale (and those who had registered to bid with a not
inconsiderable deposit of RMB200,000) were not made available.
With no tradition of precision timekeeping
in China, there is a long history of importing clocks from the West
(the Forbidden City has an extraordinary display of gilt-bronze
clocks made for export by London makers such James Cox and Joseph
Williamson or copied by the Imperial workshop).
The array of ormolu and gilt-metal clocks
offered here (mostly French and dating from the late 18th century
to the late 19th centuries) were another strong section but the
auctioneers were particularly encouraged to get away a George III
mahogany longcase clock at very decent money. A typical London
clock with an eight-day movement by John Williams, it took
It is equally important to record what, at
this very early stage, did not sell.
None of the three dining tables sold. Ormolu
objects incorporating porcelain with European figural decoration
were much less popular than those without. Austere furniture from
the second quarter of the 19th century was ignored, while 50 lots
of coins, banknotes and stamps, all established markets in Hong
Kong, met with no interest here (in China stamps are subject to an
additional 8% import tax).
The same was true of all but a small handful
of pictures, including a group of 52 canvases consigned by Russian
art specialists MacDougalls. The surprising news a day before the
sale that a 1921 oil by Vitaly Tikhov with an estimate of RMB1.5m
had received by far the highest number of online views had
ultimately proved something of a false dawn.
In a country where such material is not
easily available online, the subject matter, a full-length
reclining nude, had appealed far beyond the art-collecting
It's all now part of a little piece of
Formal dining in the European style
is increasingly popular in China and the 17 lots of silver and
electroplate were the strongest performing section of the sale.
Robert Stones' brief introduction to English silver had provided
the best attended and the most animated moments of the lecture
series held in Xiamen.
It was elementary stuff - "if I'd given it
to my local WI there would have been complaints," quipped the
proprietor of Nantwich's Peter Wilson - but the benefits of the
English hallmarking system were not lost on an audience eager for
any form of consumer protection and the proof that the item they
buy is over 100 years old and hence devoid of tax.
Above: after his lecture on the hallmarking
system, Robert Stones of Peter Wilson in Nantwich discusses English
silver with an education-hungry Chinese audience.
Standard English tea and coffee wares were
avidly sought with buyers in the room paying RMB30,000 (£3190) for
a typical 62oz four-piece service with embossed decoration by
Marples & Co of Birmingham, 1903, and RMB11,000 (£1170) for a
William IV melon-form teapot by William Barrett II, London
Most remarkable was the RMB35,000 (£3725)
required to secure a baluster three-piece tea service with floral
swag decoration by James Deakin & Sons of Sheffield. The price
was all the more impressive given its date: at 1917 it was subject
to import duties over and above the standard 17%.
At those prices, a flood of English silver
tea and coffee services could be heading East quite soon.
Xiamen Art Centre
China is full of places the size of
Birmingham that you have never heard of. And Xiamen, the old
European port city of Amoy, in Fujian province in the tropical
south west, is one of those.
A treaty port in the 19th century, it was
among the four original Special Economic Zones opened to foreign
investment and deep-water container traffic when China began its
economic reforms in the early 1980s.
Although it is fair to ask whether or not
this was the right place to hold this sale (there are five free
ports in China including those in Beijing and Shanghai), there were
many good reasons for holding the sale in the city.
While there is currently no serious art
market to speak of here (discounting the 5000-plus artists employed
to produce pictures for export from two 'oil painting villages'),
the regional authorities are keen to push the area as a destination
for art and antiques with the purpose-built Xiamen International
Art Centre currently on the drawing board.
That the local government proved amenable to
an idea that might have encountered more red tape elsewhere
certainly helped with bureaucracy, but had it really gone so
Huachen president, the affable Gan Xuejun,
who was a veteran of China's first sale of Western art a decade
ago, admitted to hitting the occasional administrative brick wall,
but his attitude is a refreshing one: the laws regarding the
importing of works of art into the People's Republic are famously
restrictive but change will only happen when they are shown to be
"This is not a toilet. It was made
to store clothes."
In his lecture Paris Furniture 1850-1900
A Luxury Market given toaudiences in Beijing and
Xiamen,the furniture historian and advisor Christopher Payne tells
an anecdote regarding the publication of the first Chinese book on
French furniture in the 1990s. It was most unfortunate that the
word commode was translated throughout as toilet.
Two decades later and Christopher (who was
first asked to lecture in China two years ago) has his first book
coming out in Chinese next month - a reworking of his 1981 'bible'
European Furniture of the 19th Century.
Although there are fundamental differences
between European and Chinese furniture - the use of veneers over a
carcass and marquetry inlay as a decorative treatment are both
alien to Chinese cabinetmaking - French furniture in particular
chimes well with the Chinese love of display (there is a parallel
to be drawn here with the aesthetic of the Qing dynasty) and their
respect for royal associations.
Christopher predicts good quality French
19th century furniture, which has appealed in emerging markets from
the Middle East to South America, will become highly desirable in
China over the next decade. Although, with estimates set close to
retail, the Linke furniture did not really perform in Xiamen there
was enough evidence at the sale to suggest he might be right.
£1 = RMB9.4