China treasure hunt

Welcome to the Asian century.

It was 18 months ago that the boom in sales of oriental antiques on the secondary market was covered in this column, sparked by the $480,000 (including buyer's premium) paid for a Chinese Famille Rose Hundred Boys vase at a Sotheby's auction in Melbourne.

It was noted at the time that the majority of buyers of such objects were Chinese nationals. One auction house suggested that 95 per cent of bidders were either based in Asia or were Asian-Australians, including a percentage of speculators hoping to make a quick, and large, profit.

The price paid for the vase was spectacular enough, but well short of the Australian record for oriental art. More than $800,000 had been paid for one of the gilt-bronzes at the 2007 Mitchell-Sterling sale held by Mossgreen.

This sale fetched more than $5 million in total and is seen as a watershed, the day the newly cashed-up Chinese bidders arrived here in force.

They were still dominating the market when Mossgreen included a Fine Asian Art section in its 2011 Autumn Auction series. Just about everything listed sold above estimates, some so far above that even the experts were shaking their heads.

While the hysteria has died down, Mossgreen's managing director, Paul Sumner, says the demand for Asian antiques is still strong, if not always jaw-dropping.

"The market behaves in exactly the same way as the Chinese economy," he says. "There's no longer a double-digit boom. The staggering stuff has eased back but it's still one of the strongest parts of our business."

An example. What he describes as "a little bronze-gilt figure" sold for $67,000 earlier this year. The pre-sale estimate was $20,000.

Chinese ceramics are still hot, predominantly ''mark and period'' pieces that have proven authenticity. Sumner says bidders are more discerning and better educated. They know what they want and they know what it's worth. The marks that prove these are not fakes are featured prominently in catalogues.

Geoffrey Smith of Sotheby's Australia is also optimistic. The crazy days of two years ago are gone but this is still a thriving market.

"If you look at our top 10 results this year," he says, "Chinese art still features incredibly in those results."

In May he sold an ''unknown'' Chinese painting for $186,000. The best recent result was the $102,000 paid for a pair of Qing Dynasty conical wine cups in October. Buyers are now more selective but what Geoffrey Smith has noticed is the determination of those wanting to fill a gap in their collections. "There can be fierce competition with 12 to 15 bidding for one item," he says. Money is still not an issue when this happens.

Buyers from China, Hong Kong and Singapore are still flying in for auctions although many more are now bidding online. The real problem for auction houses in Australia is in maintaining a supply of high-quality pieces for sale. After the boom period when just about everything sold, there's now a scarcity of top-quality items. Sotheby's and Mossgreen are already advertising for consignments for specialist Asian auctions in 2013.

Qing Dynasty (18th and 19th centuries) is the big drawcard at the moment and if you have some at home it's a good time to sell. There's also some interest in more recent works of Asian art. Last month two 1998 porcelain sculptures by Asian-Australian artist Ah Xian (born in Beijing in 1960) were sold by Shapiro Auctioneers in Sydney.

Bust 9 from his China, China series sold for $108,000 (IBP). Bust 8 fetched $104,000. Both are excellent results for contemporary art.

The sculptures were originally acquired by ABN AMRO, which was taken over by a consortium including the Royal Bank of Scotland Group in 2009. RBS decided to sell its acquired art portfolio.

In this case it proved to be a good short-term investment.

The story China treasure hunt first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop