Christie's Asia Week
Rockefeller Plaza, New York
By Michele Leight
New York - Samurai Warriors armor and helmets in Christies lobby at Rockefeller Plaza herald the return of Asia Week in New York, 2008, marking the 10th anniversary of the Indian and Southeast Asian Art Department at Christie's New York. Several outstanding Buddhas from different parts of Asia are highlights of this sale, notably "The Sarnath Buddha" illustrated below, from the Gupta Period in India, with an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000, and a show-stopping Lot 200 in the Japanese and Korean Art auction, "Highly Important Wood Sculpture of Daimcha Nyorai" Kamakuza period, Japan, illustrated at the top of the story, estimated at $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It sold for $14,377,000, setting a new world auction record for Japanese art, and any Asian work of art sold in New York. According to Christie's, the new discovered work is "believed to have come from a temple during the Meiji period (1868-1911) when the government officially adopted Shinto as the state religion." "Upon leaving the temple, it was part of a prominent family collection in the northern part of the Kanto region. The statue's existence was unknown until it was later sold to a Buddhist dealer and brought by the current owner. Suspecting the figure was hollow inside, the owner approached the curator at the Tokyo National Museum and it was discovered by X-rays that the figure contains three dedicatory objects, sealed inside the torso for over 800 years. The three objects, a wood five-stoage pagoda, crystal ball supported by a bronze stand, and a crystal five-stage pagoda, represent Buddhist symbols and are tied together with bronze wire."
Of note in this sale is a wonderful collection of Japanese swords, sword fittings and helmets - 45 lots - from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Exotic treasures include the first ever auction in the United States devoted to exquisite Chinese textiles in luscious hues with swirling or geometric embroidered patterns, fire breathing dragons and delicate peonies from the Linda Wigglesworth Collection. Rarified works of art like Chinese Snuff Bottles, an important Longquan celadon "Kinuta" vase, and libation cups crafted from rhinoceros horn from the past keep company with stunning Ghandaran sculpture, gilt bronzes from Tibet and exquisite Mughal miniature paintings. A stunning collection of Modern and Contemporary Art from South Asia - India and Pakistan - brings the ancient arts of Asia full circle to the present.
"The Ideal Image: Eight Masterpieces of Indian and Southeast Asian Art" closes out the week long auctions with masterpieces spanning several centuries, from the ancient Kingdom of Ghandara, via India, the motherland of Buddhism and Hinduism, to the Himalayas and Southeast Asia. Standing amongst these works at cocktail hour was a sublime experiences, especially after negotiating blaring horns, bustling crowds and fumes on Fifth Avenue. It is no myth that these ancient sculptures have exceptionally calming and healing powers.
"With works ranging in price from less than a thousand dollars to more than a million, there is something here for everyone," said Dr. Hugo Weihe, International Director Asian Art, and International Specialist Head, Indian and Southeast Asian Art at Christies. Included in "The Ideal Image" sale are The Sarnath Buddha, (Uttar Pradesh, 4th to 6th centuries), from the Gupta Period (estimate $600,000 to $800,000), a golden age of the arts in India, epitomized by this graceful, minimalist form with downcast, introspective eyes, carved from buff sandstone. Buddha gave his first sermon after gaining enlightenment in the Deer Park of Sarnath. It sold for $4,969,000, a world auction record for an Indian sculpture.
"How do you price something like this?" said Dr. Weihe. When I asked Dr. Weihe if this rare work would disappear from view into a private collection, not to be seen again by the general public he said:
"You will be able to see it in the future; you have no worries about that." That is comforting.
Christie's achieved the highest total ever for Asian Art sales in New York with a total of $80,068,489 for the week. The Indian and Southeast Asian Art sales also set a record for the series of sales with a total of $21,939,488.
Theow H. Tow, Deputy Chairman, Christie’s Americas and Asia commented after the sales that “Christie’s achieved the highest total for Asian Art sales in New York this week and established numerous records, a testament to the superb sales put together by Christie’s specialists." "The strength of the market combined with an extraordinary group of works of supreme quality, exceptional provenance and excellent condition, contributed to the phenomenal success. We saw enthusiasm from clients in Asia as well as the West and remarkable records were established for masterpieces. Works of such extreme rarity and importance were exemplified by the Dainichi Nyorai Buddha, which sold for $14,377,000. Christie’s dominates, finishing the week with 63% market-share for Asian Art in New York.”
To the left of Dr. Weihe in the photograph illustrated above is a rare sculpture of a woman in the prime of youth, "The Baphuon Uma," Lot 508, from Khmer, Cambodia, carved in the 11th century, from The Kaplan Colection, with an estimate of $1,000,000-$1,500,000. Uma Khmer was named the most important monument at the time of its creation in Cambodia. Uma (Parvati) is the consort of Shiva, the mythological Hindu god of destruction and renewal, and this exquisite example exudes youth, freshness, and ethereal grace: it is as if she is floating in space. It sold for $2,113,000, a world auction record for Khmer sculpture.
Two other works of art from The Kaplan Collection are illustrated above, "A Highly Important Granite Figure of Venugopala," a winsome South Indian sculpture of Krishna playing his mystical, magic flute to attract the gopis, evoking the dance of love. This superb work of art was created in the 13th-early 14th century (estimate $500,000 to $700,000), which "the owners let go of with great difficulty," said Dr. Weihe, and one can see certainly see why. It is as enigmatic as it is joyful and graceful. Venugopala metaphoricaly represents the Supreme Being, "the great ocean into which all rivers must merge" writes Dr. Weihe in the exhibition catalog. It sold for $1,609,000.
The remarkable thanka from the Kaplan Collection (illustrated above) included in this select group of eight masterpieces is noticeable for both its beauty and its large size: the "Highly Important Thanka of Vairocana," (estimate $450,000 to $600,000) from Central Tibet, in mint condition, considering it was painted in the 13th century. Exquisitely wrought, this thanka of Vairocana symbolizes the teacher, without whom there would have been no Buddha, and no path to enlightenment. He is surrounded by celestial beings, including Buddhas, Indian Buddhist monks, and Bodhisattvas arranged in registers. It sold for $1,497,000, a world auction record for a Tibetan painting.
Paintings and Sculpture from The South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art Sale have been doing exceptionally well in recent years, and the upcoming sale includes artworks from Pakistan as well as India. Christies galleries were ablaze with vibrant color - a shot of artistic adrenaline on a cold, gray day - notably a large "Battle of Ganga and Jamuna," (1972) by Maqbool Fida Hussein (estimate $600,000 to $800,000) part of a series of 27 based on the Mahabarata, the Hindu epic detailing the cosmic civil war between the forces of right and wrong, with morality and duty at its core. This painting shown at the Sao Paulo Bienal, where Husain was invited to exhibit alongside Pablo Picasso. Other paintings from this series are in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. It sold for $1,609,000.
The catalog offers further insights: "The godesses, Ganga and Jamuna, are the personifications of the holy rivers originating in the Himalayas, and here are depicted as a conjoined being labeled in Sanskrit on both sides of the split. This treatment of the figure is a highly complex and brilliant conceptualization of the internecine strife between the warring factions of the Kuru lineage, the Pandava and Kaurava cousins, each descended form these River Goddeses. The mass of figures on the right foreshadow the toll of war and pay subtle homage to Picasso, whose "Guernica" remains a formative influence on Husain."
Mother Teresa had an enormous impact on Husain, and has been a frequent subject in his art, including Lot 31, "Mother Teresa" offered at this sale. Here, in his own words, as told to Ila Paul in "Beyond the Canvas: "I have tried to capture in my paintings what her presence meant to the destitute and the dying, the light and hope she brought by mere inquiry, by putting her hand over a child abandoned in the street....That is why I try it again and again, after a gap of time, in a different medium." The estimate for this work is $120,000 to $180,000. It sold for $205,000.
Syed Haider Raza's "Bindu Pancha Tanta, (1999) is a gorgeous fusion of abstract expressionism and the ideas and elements of Tantrism derived from Indian scriptural texts: "...the bindu, or the black point, can be variously interpreted as zero, drop, seed, or sperm, and is the genesis of creation (from the catalog). This painting has an estimate $300,000 to $500,000. It sold for $361,000.
Taking color to an extreme is T.V. Santosh's "Untitled," (2007), Lot 75, illustrated here, depicting a man praying or meditating, rendered in psychadelic green, red and yellow, in his signature "reverse negative" style (estimate $20,000 to $30,000). This is a tender departure from the artists most often depicted themes of war, terrorism and violence, like the much larger, similarly pigmented "Traces of an Ancient Error," (2007), Lot 26, featuring mice, lab instruments - the seedy side of technology, with its implied "experimental" violence - and a scientist in a laboratory. (Estimate $150,000 to $200,000). Lot 75 sold for $85,000. Lot 26 sold for $337,000.
Turning down the color volume to almost bleached out is a beautiful painting by Naiza Khan, drawn from a series of painting, drawing and sculpture called 'the clothes she wears," that began an exploration of the "emotional content of the body through the prism of outward attire," (catalog). These clothes are both conventional and decidedly not so: lingerie, chastity belts and bullet proof vests. "Restore the Boundaries," (2007), is arresting for its juxtaposition of a woman's torso with an open bodice and an island off the coast of Karachi, Pakistan, that has special meaning for the artist, as she describes in the exhibition catalog: "The space here is completely different from the urban metropolis of Karachi, and it seems to give shape and space to many of my ideas."
After the sale, Hugo Weihe, international specialist head of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, said that the sale was "well received by an enthusiastic audience," adding that "we are gratified that new records were realized today, including a new world auction record for any contemporary Indian painting, which was set by M.F. Husain. Works by the senior progressive artists performed well, led by a record for Ram Kumar's exceptional figurative work." Of the 125 offered lots in the South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art Sale, 111 were sold for a total of $10,974,000.
Chinese treasures abound at this sale, including a magnificent collection of "Fine Chinese Costumes and Textiles from the Linda Wigglesworth Collection," which apart from being absolutely exquisite are also in superb condition, is also the first single owner auction in the West devoted to Chinese textiles, comprising 150 lots with pre-sale value of $3,300,000 to $4,600,000. Amazingly, this unparalelled collection began one day when Linda Wigglesworth "was unpacking a shipment of Kangxi porcelains," wrote John E.Vollmer in Christie's catalog for this sale, and "discovered Chinese robes being used as packing material. When asked what they were, she was told they were 'old Chinese clothes.' But these old clothes, with their worn, but exquisite embroidery and elaborate patterns of dragons or flowers, held Linda's attention." There was an immediate connection that alerted her to the urgent need both for their preservation and for their status as artworks to be recognized. In that afternoon, a career was born."
Tina Zonars, (above), Christies International Director for Chinese Costume and Textiles, with (left) Lot 83, an exquisite Imperial noblewoman's kesi fur lined winter surcoat, Yongzheng/Quanlong Period, (1723-1795), which she explained was exceptionally rare because few textiles from the 18th century survive (estimate $250,000 to $350,000) and (right) Lot 12, an equally rare, first rank Imperial consort's embroidered summer surcoat, longua, which appears to be the only outer garment dating from the 18th century to be offered at auction (estimate $200,000 to $250,000). Lot 83 sold for $241,000. In striking contrast to the unadorned dark blue silk ground, the eight richly embroidered dragon roundels coiled around longevity symbols are superimposed against flames, swirling clouds and rolling waves. Part of an Imperial yellow silk panel visible on the left, (Lot 146), is so beautiful it is hard to believe it is entirely embroidered in minute satin stitch. This bucolic scene resplendent with pagodas and peach trees laden with the fruit of immortality is occupied by "immortals," and spreads out over nine glorious panels measuring 47 x 100 1/2 inches (Estimate $300,000 to $500,000).
Linda Wigglesworth was a consultant and advisor to filmmaker Bernard Bertolluci for "The Last Emperor," (1987) and an empress's crown decorated with phoenixes is offered at this sale (estimate $4,000 to $6,000) together with many gorgeous accessories, including a Mandarin's velvet brimmed winter hat, illustrated above, (Lot 115), in black and red (estimate $3,800 to $4,500), and Lot 127, a sumptuous red silk floss summer hat, with a beautifully painted tin hat box (estimate $18,000 to $25,000). Lot 115 sold for $8,750 and Lot 127 sold for $46,600. The hat boxes that have protected these fragile headdresses are works of art themselves. Rank played an important part in Imperial China, and "rank badges" in glorious designs, and "hat buttons" in different colors (as on these two hats) denoted the civil, military, artistic or royal rank, or other position, the wearer occupied in society, as did resplendent military banners, also included in this sale.
Lot 40 is an exquisite white satin Imperial Guardman's ceremonial uniform and helmet from the Qianlong Period, 1736-1795. It has an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold $115,000.
Of the 154 lots offered in the wardrobe auction, 112 sold for a total $1,800,963.
Another single owner sale "The Meriem Collection, Part II: Important Chinese Snuff Bottles," includes fine examples from the legendary Palace Workshops, Beijing, among others, like Lot 295, the fine "European subject" snuff bottle illustrated here, originally from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection, with an estimate of $170,000 to $200,000. It sold for $337,000. Not shown is Lot 253, a spectacular "inside painted" crystal snuff bottle (1900-1920) by Ma Shaoxuan, Beijing, with a portrait of Zhang Quian (1853-1926) meticulously rendered with "angled brushes" - comprised of a single hair - through the tiny opening at the top (Estimate $120,000 to $140,000). It sold for $109,000. The mind boggles at the technical agility of the artist, let alone his ability to achieve a true likeness of his subject "backwards."
Lot 561, a Longuan celadon Kinuta vase with a stunning bluish-green glaze once in the collection of the reknowned tea master Matsudaira Fumai (1751-1818) is striking for its large size, and for its stylized dragon-fish handles, which substitute for the more common phoenix-shaped handles.(Estimate $800,000 to $1,200,000). It sold for $2,281,000.
Lot 396 is an outstanding gilt bronze seated Bodhisattva from the 10th-11th century in superb condition. It was extremely difficult to cast bronze figures of Buddha at that time, let alone one of this size and quality. It has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $2,505,000. The elegant posture of this Liao gilt bronze is either an incarnation of Avalokitesvara (Guanyin), the most popular and venerated Buddhist deity of the period, or Maitreya, the "future Buddha." Lot 436 is a winsome, finely carved dark green jade water buffalo, 17th/18th century, from the Estate of Leona M. Helmsley. It has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $421,000.
Tina Zonars, international director for Christie's of Chinese Works of Art, said after the sale that "Today's today of $26,299,588 set a record for the highest series of Chinese Works of art sales at Christie's in New York," adding that the Merriem Collection of snuff bottles, part II, "was 100 percent sold and set a record for a Chinese snuff bottle." "The sale of Chinese textiles from the collection of Linda Wrigglesworth was the first of its kind in the U.S., marking the accomplishments of this dealer and collector, whose dedication to the field raised Chinese textiles to the status of art."
"Winsome" also describes the well known Korean artist Park Sookeum's paintings, two of which lead a group of 20 Korean modern and contemporary artworks at this sale, aquired for about $30 in the '60s': Lot 468, "Mother, child and two women," circa 1964, (estimate $500,000 to $600,000) and Lot 469, "Coming home from market," circa 1965, (estimate $400,000 to $500,000), which are quite diminutive in size. Lot 468 sold for $601,000 and Lot 469 sold for $657,000. With only about 400 works created in the artist's lifetime, any appearance of his work at auction is extremely rare. Christie's holds the current record for Sookeum's "Seated woman and jar," 1962, which sold for $1,239,500 in March 2004.
The "Dainichi Nyorai" Buddha illustrated at the top of the story attracted considerable attention at the press preview, but I had been fortunate to spend a few moments almost entirely alone with the piece because I arrived early. Without the glare of floodlights of the Asian TV camera crews, and members of the press wielding notebads, the incredible "presence" of this carved wood deity was keenly felt. It would be a wonderful sculpture to live with. A Japanese TV reporter asked me what I thought of the estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000, and I said I believed it would sell for more.
"Dainichi Nyorai" is believed to be the creation of Unkei, one of the greatest carvers of the early Kamakura period (1190). Amazingly, the statue it was discovered by chance by a dealer in a country antiques store. The present owner suspected the statue was hollow, and this was confirmed by the curator at the Tokyo National Museum, when X-rays revealed that the figure contains three dedicatory objects that have remained sealed inside the torso for over 800 years. This is from the Christies catalog"
"From the eleventh century, sculptors in a workshop partonized by the aristocracy or court received honorific titles and achieved a level of recognition above that of civil servant. In fact, sculptures from this period are often signed inside, although the name is invisible until the sculpture is opened, as many have been. Unkei, who was rewarded the title of hoin, the highest rank any artist could achieve, is the likely sculptor of this Dainichi. He is the direct descendant of the Kei School of Buddhist sculpture and his work has been equated with the muscular, masculine style of Michaelangelo. He produced his early work in Nara, center of traditional buddhist sculpture, and around 1200 he moved his studio to Kyoto."
The quality of many of the works on offer at this sale is exceptionally high, with two, The Sarnath Buddha and "Dainichi Nyorai, bordering on the iconic. The Chinese costumes displayed "en masse" or in clusters, were as uplifting as the sight of apple and cherry blossoms in spring - a feast for the eye and a balm for the spirit.
Hugo Weihe, International Director of Asian Art, International Specialist Head of Indian and Southeast Asian Art said that "The highest total for a series of Indian and Southeast Asian Art sales was achieved with a total of $21,939,488. Together with yesterday’s South Asian Modern + Contemporary sale, an impressive total of $31,914,088 was achieved for Indian and Southeast Art. Dramatic new records were established for an Indian sculpture when a sandstone figure of Buddha reached nearly $5 million; for Indian painting with a work by Nainsukh of Guler that exceeding $2 million; and a sandstone figure of Uma doubled the previous record for a Khmer sculpture – shattering all previous records. Once again, quality, rarity and provenance were recognized and rewarded above all.”