Story of a Kuanyin statuette

detail of photo taken by Susan B. Anthony last year with the Kuanyin to the far right.

This is a tale of the art world and how some dealers operate and what can happen. It also illustrates the arbitrary nature of prices and how hard it is to place value on these objects, whose artistic quality and historic significance makes them truly priceless.

About a year ago, or so, I was in my colleagues place and on a counter top full of objects from all sorts of cultures and times, was a small intense dark stone sculpture of a Bodhisattva, of the most amazing quality.  Upon looking at it, and seeing the incredible detail of its carving I had to have it and after a reverse negotiation, i.e., I offered what I thought was a high price, higher than I had been accustomed to paying, my colleague agreed to sell it to me.  He loved the piece as well and said that if I ever needed cash, he'd happily buy it back from me.  I took it to my gallery in Hudson and it was one of my prize pieces.

Photo by Telyfoto

Above is a photo of the piece, and you can see how every detail is so well carved.  The sculpture is only 20 inches tall, but if you only saw a photo of it, with no reference to scale, you would assume it was much larger given the detail.  The statuette is identified as of Kuanyin, by the jar of water held in its lowered left hand, and it dates to either the late Northern Qi Dynasty, or early Northern Zhou, somewhere around 570 - 580 A.D. It is carved of limestone, and has a waxed surface, and has traces of the original gold leaf on the face and hands, giving it the appearance of being made of bronze. 

I put the piece on my website and on Curator's Eye, which I had recently joined.  Early this year, I got an inquiry from someone identifying themselves as an art consultant based in Switzerland.  She not only emailed me, but also telephoned me, a rarity as one talks so little to people on the phone these days.  I sent her good photos and the supporting documentation including a scientific report on it authenticating it, as well as a scholarly write up on it, also authenticating it.  She also asked about the provenance which I provided, I was told it had been purchased from the Ho family collection, who had had it for years before, and had been owned by my colleague for nearly ten years.  My new client offered me a price for it, under what I was asking, but enough, that I was happy and I accepted.  The asking price was $45,000., and I was offered and accepted $30,000.  Obviously, I paid less than that, so was happy to make a profit.  I invoiced her, and was wired the money.  Remember, this object was being purchased sight unseen except for photos, for tens of thousands of dollars.  Weirdly, my client asked me to ship the piece, not to her in Switzerland, but to an art handler in London.  She wasn't even going to be in London for a few weeks, and I thought it odd to have it delivered there. 

A few weeks went by and I emailed my client about when she was going to London, and to please let me know what she thought of the piece when she finally saw it.  A week later or so, I did hear back, she had made it to London and loved the piece, she said it radiated, which it does.  In fact, she liked it so much that she showed it to her main client in London and he insisted on buying it for himself, so she sold it to him.  I was happy, I had made some money and was pleased that she did to.  I had no idea what she sold it to him for, but assumed it was around what my original asking price was, but really, it wasn't my business, all I needed to know is that I made a profit and my client was happy. 

I thought this a very nice story of how the internet allows a dealer like me to operate away from the major art centers, I had sold to someone in Europe thanks to Curator's Eye, something that would have been impossible before the internet.  I went on with my life and thought little of it, until one day a little over a month ago or so, I got a phone call from my friend from whom I had purchased it and he started by saying, "Are you sitting down".  I wasn't, so I did so at once, and he told me that the Kuanyin was featured with a four page spread in the latest Sotheby's London catalog for their May Chinese Works of Art Sale.  The stunner was the estimate, 150,000. to 200,000. pounds sterling.  Innocently, thinking that my new client would be surprised to learn that the piece she sold to her client was being flipped to an auction, I emailed her a link to the Sotheby's catalog.  Expressing surprise in her emailed response, she quickly changed the subject to her own recent travels. She also said that her "important" collector client had a good relationship with Sotheby's, and that was why he was able to get such a high estimate. She said if she had tried to put it up at auction, she wouldn't have gotten that estimate. I thought that was odd, as what "important" collector buys an object of such quality and flips it immediately?  The timing was such that it went from the art adviser buyer, to her client, directly to the auction house since they have a three month lead time to put together a sale and catalog. 

After learning of the Kuanyin's consignment to auction, I had several fears.  One that other dealers might label it a fake, despite all the supporting evidence and that it wouldn't sell, and my client would want to return it to me.  My colleague said we should be happy to buy it back given the value the auction house put on it.  The other fear was that it simply wouldn't sell because of the high estimate and my clients client and her would not be happy with their purchase from me.  Well I needn't have worried, as the Kuanyin sold for 182,500. pounds, or about $300,000., US, depending upon the conversion rate of the day.  A stunning price, someone made a lot of money and it wasn't me or my colleague who had found the piece. 

The results from Sotheby's website, the price includes the buyer premium.

I am actually not unhappy with the outcome of this story, but it is somewhat disturbing in what it says about the art world and the valuation of works of art.  It also speaks to the crony nature of the art world, where people and objects are not treated equally, rather some are favored over others, without regard to the merits of the object or person.  This type of price inequality is something that happens in an emerging market, which early Chinese Buddhist sculpture is.  But it still seems wildly arbitrary.  The value given by the auction house vindicates my enthusiasm for the field, and certainly shows that my colleague and myself are being very fair to our clients.  I do think the day isn't far off when the values do rise to this level, so I'm happy to have invested in the sculptures.  But shouldn't I have been able to be accorded the same treatment as this "important" collector?  Someday I will test it, by attempting to place at auction a suitable piece.

The real story of this saga is this I believe, my new art adviser client saw my piece on Curator's Eye and inquired directly to me.  I sent her high resolution images which she no doubt shopped around, and she may well have a colleague, more likely a dealer though than collector, and they offered it to Sotheby's before committing to buying it from me.  Which is why it was sent to London, it was destined for the auction already.  Which is why she, the art adviser, was so relaxed about having spent tens of thousands of dollars on a piece sight unseen, and waiting to see it until she made it to London.  I doubt very much that she sold the piece, but do think it likely that she worked with an established and respected London Chinese dealer who was able to place the things advantageously at Sotheby's.  I am sure she shared in the profits and this may be the way she makes money, or tries to when she can.  There is nothing wrong with that, I just don't really respect it.  There is no passion for the art, no real investment on ones own part, that a real dealer does. 

On the plus side for me is that the value of the pieces that I have been dealing with and selling to my clients is certainly supported by this price.