Around the houses
Hong Kong turns into auction heaven this week, especially for those with humongous bank accounts. In addition to the colossal six days of Christie's autumn sales at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, which began on Friday and offers 3,600 pieces, Bonhams is weighing in tomorrow at the Island Shangri-La with auctions of Chinese works of art, snuff bottles, and rare Yixing stoneware from the Gerard Hawthorn Collection. Its modern and contemporary Chinese painting sales - including works by Lin Fengmian, Chen Yifei and Sanyu - are each estimated to bring in more than HK$30 million.
Seoul Auction is holding its autumn sale, also tomorrow, at the Mandarin Oriental and will be offering Smooth Egg with Bow by Jeff Koons, expected to be a blockbuster. This monumental piece is from the American artist's Celebration series and is appearing at auction and in the Asian market for the first time. Japan's Est-Ouest Auction House, with more than a bit of tongue in cheek, is selling Dog Mobile: A Car for Francis Bacon by Ai Weiwei on Tuesday in the J.W. Marriott Hotel. The piece, a Mercedes-Benz G Wagon covered with illustrations of a dog named after the British painter by the mainland artist and activist, first went on show this summer at the Tokyo Art Fair. It is among the 700 items to come under the hammer at Est-Ouest, with a total estimate of HK$81 million.
But perhaps the most notable arrival this season is new kid on the block Tiancheng International Auctioneers from Shanghai. Its first auction, scheduled to take place tomorrow in the Bank of China building, goes head-to-head with Christie's mammoth sales in fine Chinese classical paintings, and calligraphy and fine Chinese modern paintings, two normally overflowing auctions out of its 13 sales.
And judging by the art on offer - which ranges from Rodin's Monumental Head of Pierre de Wissant, an enlarged cast of the bronze head of one of the figures from the French sculptor's famous Monument to the Burghers of Calais, to a collection of Buddhist figures, and an array of fine jewellery and jadeite - Tiancheng means business. The most recent addition to the auction is a small collection of Han and Warring States gold-gilt iron swords and other weapons.
Although some of the art is a bit uneven in quality, this sale is not short on big names. The literati paintings feature works from modern masters such as Zhang Daqian (one of the highest estimates), Wu Guanzhong, Zhu Dequn and Zhao Wuji, all role models of contemporary literati. Zhang's Raincloud Over Wushan has a low estimate of HK$9 million. Ink and brush works by younger artists and works on paper fall within a range of prices attractive to younger collectors.
Tiancheng, set up in spring this year, is Hong Kong-based. According to its chief executive Ingrid Lam, the company sourced the art from the usual suspects: collectors, galleries and artists. The difference from other auctions of modern and contemporary Chinese paintings is that the works were gathered with a theme in mind: 'Contemporary Literati', created by Lee Mei-ling, director of the auction house's modern and contemporary art department and a specialist from Taiwan.
Lam and Lee are experienced in the auction world with employment backgrounds at Sotheby's plus mainland and Taiwanese auction houses, and the company has been recruiting seasoned staff. Managing director Wang Jie, for example, is a mainland art expert with 15 years of experience in the auction business and is now in charge of international business development.
'The theme of 'Contemporary Literati' is to bring people back to art in everyday living,' says Lam. 'This special class of scholar/artists throughout China's long history valued their ink stones, brush and water pots, strangely shaped rocks and brushes as much as paintings and calligraphy. The originality of art is the purpose, rather than the price it fetches.'
Troubles have come to light lately in the mainland's art market, such as problems with provenance, copies, failure to fulfil contracts, price ramping and other speculative practices. But Lam is convinced that her company being in Hong Kong, which is compliant with international standards and protected by a strong rule of law, plus being scrupulous about provenance, will reassure buyers that the art is authentic and estimates are suitable.
Local art agents, gallery owners and dealers are holding back on opinions about Tiancheng's entry into the already crowded art auction field. One gallery owner and agent, who prefers to stay anonymous, says: 'This auction house is backed by a Shanghai businesswoman and its direction is not very clear right now. It's not the best collection as it includes some decorative art and jewellery, and most established collectors will probably wait and see how the auction goes.'
Lee says that in order to showcase some younger Chinese artists working in the traditional Oriental style - even if they are using new media such as photography and video - Tiancheng buys directly from them. But usually items are sourced from reputable buyers or dealers, she adds.
'We have our own contacts and get clients' lists from other auction houses as well. Our catalogue is on the internet, so all the information about our sale is readily available and transparent. I choose the pieces from the market but only use the ones that fit the theme of this year,' she says. 'We are planning to hold two auctions a year.'