German auctioneers who held their sales in November and December achieved numerous high prices which went way above estimates.
Chinese bidders were responsible for most of the surprise results, willing to invest considerable sums apparently without a second thought.
However, the market is not getting any easier. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find pieces in European collections which meet the high standards expected by Asian buyers.
Nine-day auction series
During the nine-day auction series from November 9-17 at Hermann Historica (23% buyer’s premium) in Munich, several spectacular price rises emerged, none more so than the foot of a monumental Buddha statue which was in the catalogue with a guide of €12,000.
The left foot, 3ft 9in (1.15m) long and 17in (44cm) high, was fashioned from hammered copper panels and then fire-gilt. Originally it was decorated with rows of precious or semi-precious stones, long since lost.
The foot was of Tibetan origin and can be dated to the 17th or 18th century. It attracted bids from all over the world and was finally knocked down to an anonymous buyer for €170,000 (£150,440).
Porcelain from the Yongle period (1403-24) is among the most sought-after by international – particularly Chinese – collectors, not only on account of its rarity, but also because of the high quality of the models and their decoration.
It is also one of the most copied styles, so it was not unusual that the Stuttgart firm of Nagel (33% buyer’s premium), whose December 6-7 sale was held in Salzburg, catalogued a 14in (36cm) high Meiping, decorated with fruit branches in underglaze blue, as Yongle Style.
The guide of €2000-3000 reflected the house expert’s opinion. At least three Chinese bidders definitely thought otherwise and pushed the price ever upwards, with no-one prepared to concede until it reached €1.35m (£1.19m).
Also noteworthy was the interest for a 20th century piece of porcelain. It was a 13in (34cm) high vase, painted with birds and plum blossoms by Wang Bu (1898-1968), one of the most renowned artists and porcelain painters of the 20th century who recreated the works of previous generations.
This vase, the property of an Austrian collector since 1990, was dated 1958, a year before Wang Bu was awarded the title Taoci Meishujia (master of porcelain art). Nagel was expecting €30,000-50,000, but the bidding only ended at €870,000 (£769,910), with yet another Chinese collector claiming his prize.
On December 9, it was the turn of Lempertz (24% buyer’s premium) in Cologne to offer a selection of 1000 works of art.
It was hardly surprising that Chinese bidders were in the running for a 6in (15cm) high, 17th century finely carved rhinoceros horn libation cup, which went above the upper estimate to sell for €100,000 (£88,495).
It was apparently purchased in China in the 1920s by Eugen Herrigel (1884-1955), author of the book Zen in the Art of Archery, first published in 1948. He later passed it on to the great-grandfather of the current consignor.
A Chinese-American bidder had fewer competitors to contend with when he secured a 12in (30cm) high 12th century Yunnan bronze figure of Buddha Amitabha, which had also been in a German collection since the 1920s.
The hammer fell at €90,000 (£79,650), somewhat below the lower estimate.
Much more of a surprise was the intense bidding for a Chinese scroll painting after Gao Kegong, a famous 13th-14th century artist and poet.
The 13in x 15ft 5in (32cm x 4.7m) paper scroll, decorated in ink with a river landscape with fishermen and inscribed with the name of the artist, was estimated at €4000- 6000. Only when the bidding reached €190,000 (£168,140) was the auctioneer able to knock it down to the anonymous buyer.
Against the current trend, the main focus of the buyers at Van Ham (28% buyer’s premium) in Cologne on December 7 was not Chinese works of art, but rather Japanese netsuke from an Italian collection.
The buyers appeared not to be distracted by the ongoing international debate concerning the trade with works of art in ivory. The two top prices were for ivory netsuke, both going to international collectors.
First up was the 3½in (9cm) figure of the mythical Qilin, a unicorn-like beast that has been part of Japanese mythology since the 5th century BC. This 18th century Edo period figure was the work of an unknown craftsman from Kyoto.
Its condition proved that it was not just a collector’s piece, but had been much loved and worn: the front was bleached by exposure to the sun, while the rear had acquired a darker patina.
The Qilin had an impeccable provenance; it was part of the Behrens Collection, and was sold in 1913 for 3 pounds 5 shillings. It later belonged to the renowned collectors Jacques Carré and Franz Mannstaedt.
In 1988 the Qilin was auctioned by Trudel Klefisch (who has been running the Asian art department at Van Ham for the last few years), in her own auction house for DM130,000. The buyer then was an Italian collector whose widow consigned the netsuke to Van Ham.
This time around, it found a new owner for a low-estimate €100,000 (£88,495).
Some time later, the 5½in (14cm) tall figure of a Dutch sailor holding a rabbit, also from the 18th century, caused an even greater stir. It was expected to bring €26,000-30,000.
The bidders were, however, far more adventurous and carried on until they reached a remarkable €165,000 (£146,020), which was the highest price ever paid for a netsuke at a German auction and, according to Van Ham, the highest price achieved worldwide for a netsuke in 2017.
£1 = €1.13