This past week was Asia Week at Sotheby's New York and Christie's. The Sotheby's sale had some exceptional and very good early Chinese Buddhist sculpture, Christie's had almost nothing of that type. The estimates at Sotheby's were very high, I thought overly ambitious, but I was hopeful. Perhaps Sotheby's was hoping to recreate the excitement and high prices generated by the Robert Ellsworth auction earlier in March of this year: http://tomswope.com/amazing-results-the-robert-ellsworth-sale-at-christies-march-2015/. The early Chinese Buddhist sculpture in the Ellsworth sale sold exceptionally well, going way over the conservatively low, but realistic estimates. However, as I would like to see the field progress, I was hoping the high expectations at Sotheby's would be realized. I was unable to attend the sale in person, so followed it live online, as now anyone with an internet connection can. It was a shocking experience, not a single one of the early Chinese Buddhist sculptures sold. Below are the top three pieces:
|lot 422, Sotheby's 16 September 2015 sale|
The stela above has a single Buddha standing with a flame shaped halo behind him, on a lotus pedestal. Beautifully carved the full robes of the Buddha flare out on the sides in typical Wei Dynasty style, and the halo has incised and low relief carvings of flames, vegetal ornament, dragons and apsaras. The smiling beatific face with pronounced ushisha are all typical of the Wei Dynasty in the early 6th Century A.D. The piece is carved of limestone, stands 38 1/4 inches (97cm) high, and has a provenance as from a French collection early 20th Century. Not a distinguished provenance, and probably not a provenance the auction house would accept if provided it by a dealer. However, in theory, it was a legitimate piece free of potential troubles. As a work of art, it is exceptional, very complete and beautiful, it is a superb example of early Chinese Buddhist sculpture of the Northern Wei Dynasty.
The estimate was an ambitious $800,000. to $1,200,000. USD.
|lot 424, Sotheby's 16 September 2015 sale|
Stylized and blocky, and not particularly beautiful, the standing Bodhisattva sculpture above is a rare and good example of early Chinese Buddhist sculpture. One the base is an inscription that dates the piece to the late Northern Qi Dynasty, 576 A.D. Without that inscription I would have given it a Northern Zhou dating, 577 - 581 A.D., which just goes to show you to be open minded about style! Quite large, it stands 58 1/4 inches (148cm) tall, carved of sandstone. This piece has a very distinguished provenance, coming from Yamanaka Co., Kyoto prior to 1925, and acquired by the sellers in the 1950's or 60's. It was also exhibited and published in 2005 at the Kyushu National Museum in Japan. The estimate was also $800,000. to $1,200,000. USD.
|lot 425, Sotheby's 16 September 2015 sale|
This large Buddha head in limestone is from a high relief from a cave temple of the Northern Wei Dynasty, early 6th Century A.D. It is quite large as these things go, 18 inches (45.7cm) tall. Quite beautiful in expression it has the elongated face found in this period of Buddhist sculptures. It also has what appears to be quite a good provenance, a named private Brussels collection from 1950. The estimate was strong, $120,000. to $150,000. USD., but didn't seem unreasonably high to me, almost conservative.
I watched online and was stunned when one after the other, these and the other early Chinese Buddhist sculptures failed to sell. The beautiful stela, lot 422, was bought in at $780,000., the standing Bodhisattva, lot 424, was bought in at $620,000., and the Wei Buddha head, lot 425, reached only $52,000. One problem with auctions, particularly when one isn't actually in the room but even if you are, is that you don't know if there were any bids at all, the auctioneer could have been bidding off the chandeliers as they say. I hope there were actual bids and the failure to sell reflected that the bids never reached the consignor set reserve price. If that is the case, then perhaps there were buyers for the pieces, at fairly substantial prices but not at the estimated prices. The last piece, the Buddha head relief, might not have had a buyer at all, given the very low price it was bought in for, about a third of the estimate.
Right after the sale I called a colleague in New York who had previewed the sale and knows some prominent collector/scholars who were there as well. What he heard was that Chinese dealers were telling people that the pieces were fake, and apparently, they were believed. Why would a rather unimpressive small damaged Buddha sculpture in the Ellsworth sale, lot 755 in March 2015 sell for 1.5 million, and a large, complete stela of a Buddha fail to sell much less than that? It makes no sense at all.
What the failure of these very good pieces to sell reveal is the irrationality of the art market and how easily manipulated the buyers are. People are prone to believe the worst things they hear, and most cannot see with, or believe their own eyes. The pieces above are clearly authentic, regardless of what was whispered about them. That these naysayers were believed is an indictment of the shallowness of the understanding of the material on the part of the dealers and collectors who should know better. It also shows how irrational the valuation of works of art is, it is completely subjective, there is no objective way to tell if something will sell and what it will sell for. Everything depends upon the mood of the buyers and the spell cast by the marketing etc. on them. I've done very well in my life looking past all that for myself. However it is frustrating and damages faith in the market. Perhaps the failure to sell was due to the high estimates, and after the sale the pieces might sell privately. Let us hope so. The question I have is what motivates people to condemn pieces like this? Whose interest are they serving? If they believe this nonsense themselves, it exposes them as blind to art and ignorant, if they condemned the pieces falsely, this borders on criminal behavior. Such is the art market. Don't believe what you hear, learn to look for yourself.