The weird and the wonderful
Schlock or haute art? The buyers will decide during the seven-day Christie's spring sale that ends on Wednesday when two rare singing bird 'pistols' go under the hammer. Celebrating its 25th anniversary in Hong Kong, the auction house is offering some of the best Asian modern and contemporary art, imperial ceramics and works of art, watches, jewellery and wine, plus some of the quirkiest objects ever made.
Undoubtedly the most unusual highlight of the sale is the magnificent pair of matching gold and enamel bird pistols.
The matching mirror-image gold pistols set with diamonds, agate and pearls - attributed to craftsman Freres Rochat working in Geneva around 1820 - are the only known pair of such singing bird pistols in the world, says the auctioneer. The birds really do sing, flutter their wings and hop around after popping out of the barrels when the trigger is pulled. Aurel Bacs, international head of the watch department at Christie's, says the two pistols, which will be placed on the block tomorrow, are among the rarest of objects, only seen in the world's important museums. 'Rochat's workshop was known for works that incorporated music, automatons and other moving parts. The pistols' value is difficult to determine because of their excessively high level of rarity,' Bacs says.
A sense of fun also prevails in the modern Chinese paintings on sale. Qi Baishi's painting, Monkey Contemplating Peach, is imbued with blessings and symbols of longevity. The cheeky monkey is an important symbol, for its name hou is a pun on a high-ranking noble, and is also symbolic of longevity. The peach and monkey are often paired, with the peach of immortality harking back to the old folk tale Journey to the West, in which the Monkey King eats the queen's largest peaches. Qi positions the monkey on a rock, a natural symbol of longevity and permanence.
Another highlight of the sale is a stunning 10-panel screen displaying the talents of some of the most accomplished artists from a variety of imperial Qing workshops. The artists were among the finest lacquer painters, kesi weavers, embroiderers, painters, wood carvers and gilders. Pola Antebi, a specialist in Chinese ceramics and works of art, says: 'The 60 repetitions of the shou character worked into this piece may be an indication that it would have been a specific imperial commission, probably to commemorate a special imperial birthday, possibly that of the Qing Emperor Kangxi's 60th birthday in 1713, or perhaps that of his son, the Emperor Yongzheng. Everyone loves a good story about these antiquities.'
Emperor Qianlong (1736-95), renowned as the finest collector of the Qing dynasty, pushed ceramics makers to surprise or shock him with new designs and glaze colours. Probably the most expensive piece in the sale is the magnificent famille rose revolving and reticulated chilong double vase in pink and yellow with the Qianlong iron-red six-character sealmark. This vase-within-a vase has a pivot at the bottom, allowing the inner vase to revolve 360 degrees, displaying 12 birds. 'This piece is very intimate and private because you have to be very close to the open-work medallions to see the pattern on the inside. Its colours and multiple designs reveal the Manchu taste of the 18th century at its best,' says Antebi.
A rare imperial picnic box is a lacquerware triple decker with a handle for easy carrying. Intricately carved on all sides with patterns replicated perfectly three times, this Qing piece is in splendid condition for a utilitarian object.
Chairman Mao is still a popular image that contemporary Chinese and Asian artists like to put their quirky spin on. Attempts include Liu Wei's Swimming Series, Wang Guangyi's Mao Zedong: No 2 of Red Box, Li Shan's younger and slimmer Mao and Korean Kim Dong-Yoo's Marilyn Monroe vs Mao Zedong, a Mao portrait made up of tiny images of Marilyn.
But younger Chinese artists are not so obsessed with Chairman Mao and the baby cadres these days, and are producing fresher and more original art - as are artists from Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia, which are often more affordable.
Two Filipino artists stand out in the Southeast Asian contemporary sale. Jose John Santos' works are richly textured creations, often deceptively appearing as collages despite their oil-on-canvas medium. The work Paper Dolls displays several changes of clothing apparently belonging to a man whose head is covered by a box.
If the clothes make the man, then this painting shows the apparent ease of transforming appearances, and even one's character, through a shift of clothing or a change of expression.
Rainbow Punch by Ronald Ventura presents a bright canvas paired with a brilliantly created sculpture-installation, a rare combination of these two mediums. In the work, a boy sits in a psychedelic TV set, watching the canvas of boxers smashing each other into rainbow-coloured oblivion.
This interaction and inversion between 2-D and 3-D formats raises the question: 'Who is watching the watcher?'