Saturday - 01 November 2014

Mixed results but ground-breaking sale finds a market for some Western antiques in China

03 May 2013Written by Roland Arkell

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 coming home.

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 early spring.

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 here.

But there are many other ways in judging the success of a pioneering event such as this.

 

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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 to sale.

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 an education.

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.

 

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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 mainland China.

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 furniture.

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 apartments.

Middle Range

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 (£17,020).

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 RMB120,000 (£12,750).

It is equally important to record what, at this very early stage, did not sell.

Unsold Material

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 community.

It's all now part of a little piece of auction history.

English Silver

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.

 

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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 1834.

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 smoothly?

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 outdated.

European Furniture

"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

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