Artistic impressions: arts auctions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 10:13am

Two interesting public talks were held in Hong Kong last week amid the art auction frenzy: one by Judith Dolkart, the chief curator of The Barnes Foundation in the US; and another by Giuseppe Eskenazi, a London-based dealer of Chinese antiquities, who has just released a book charting his 50-year career.

It's good to know that the auction season is not all about buying and selling, investing and speculating.

Dolkart's lecture, part of Christie's firt Art Forum series, looked at the evolution of the impressive collection of the Barnes Foundation.

Between 1912 and 1951, American chemist Albert Barnes assembled one of the finest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern paintings in the world.

This world-class collection - which includes works by Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Vincent van Gogh - had been tucked away in the owner's leafy home in Merion, Pennsylvania until May this year, when it found a new home in Fairmount Park in downtown Philadelphia.

What is fascinating about this transfer is that, despite being housed in a new building, the art is arranged in the precisely the same way that it had been exhibited at the old site. So the collection illustrates not only how Barnes' taste in art changed over time, but how he wanted the works - some are clustered together on one wall - to be viewed. (Christie's sales will be held at the end of next month).

Over at Sotheby's, Eskenazi shared his thoughts about the art market ("prices will continue to go up, but just not as steeply" for Chinese works of art), as well as anecdotes about quirky collectors he had encountered.

He recalled one European collector having a one-of-a-kind Ming vase - until an identical vase surfaced on the market. The collector went on to spend millions to buy that, which probably made up the pair, before smashing it into pieces. So the one he owned was, now, unique.

That was both an amusing - and sad - tale, said Eskenazi.

Sotheby's has been much in the news of late: for their joint venture with the state-owned Beijing GeHua Art Company last month; for the pulling of the Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien) painting from last week's ceramics and works of art sales because of ownership issues; and for the sale of a 20,000-year-old mammoth skeleton to a buyer from Hong Kong in Paris earlier this month.

Though its autumn sales concluded last week, the auction house will be holding its first selling exhibition of European decorative arts in Asia next month.