London turns to Asia

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 November, 1998, 12:00am

London's four main auction houses may collaborate on pragmatic things like sales timings - the only way to ensure the most collectors are in one place at one time - but otherwise it is a painted jungle out there, and their relationships are nothing if not competitive.

Yet this month for the first time Christie's, Sotheby's, Phillips and Bonhams joined forces - together with other specialists in Asian antiquities - to create the first Asian Art In London Festival.

'Our biggest problem,' said publicist and co-organiser Belinda Harley, 'is getting confused with Asia Week. People think 'oh yes, we've seen that before'. But actually this is completely new.' For the past few weeks Londoners have been able to attend lectures on subjects as arcane as Zangids And Ayyubids: Art And Patronage In Syria And The Jazira, or as practical as The Influence Of Chinese Culture On London Society.

More importantly, a series of Asian theme exhibitions have opened around town, including the Royal Academy's 100 Masterpieces Of Imperial Chinese Ceramics lent by Hong Kong collector Au Bak-ling, Kensington Palace's China Mania reconstruction of William and Mary's porcelain gallery, and the Islamic Art And Patronage Show Of Treasures From Kuwait at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Although, or perhaps because, many of the collectors of Asian art tend to keep a low profile, the area has high prestige, and the social events around Asian Art In London were glittering.

A gala dinner was held last Friday at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the night before the British Museum hosted a diplomatic reception to raise money for an Asian arts education specialist.

Nearly 50 galleries joined the event, holding late-night openings.

For Ming fans it was a bonanza, but Londoners hoping to see modern Asian art would have been disappointed. With few exceptions, the fast-moving Asian 20th century hardly registered on the cash tills and catalogues.

'If there is one thing I have learned is not to be ambitious,' Ms Harley said. 'This was year one so we had to open with a certain expediency. It takes three to four years to set up a major exhibition.' She said this event was dreamed up by dealers Giuseppe Eskenazi and Michael Spink, who wanted to highlight the resources of London for Asian antiquities, and put together a board that included all the auction houses. 'It's a surprising fact that London is richer than New York for Asian art,' she said, adding it is wrong to suggest this is London's response to the tremendous activity in New York recently.

This time Asian Art In London was almost exclusively a trade event: the lectures and the gallery openings tended to be advertised only within the dealing and collecting community.

'It would be wonderful if we moved from trade to a public event. But the worst thing you can do is try too much and then you fail,' Ms Harley said.

They could be more ambitious for 1999 and 2000, she said, performing arts troupes from Asia might be invited, and the definition of 'Asian art' extended chronologically and geographically.

'We might also look at Indonesian artists or Indian artists. This is definitely not just going to be 'London goes Chinese for a fortnight'.' Asian Art In London www.asian; Au Bak-ling Collection: Royal Academy of Art until December 20; Islamic Art And Patronage: Brunei Gallery, SOAS until December 11; Rare Marks On Chinese Ceramics: Percival David Foundation, SOAS until May 28