Asian Art Draws Some Collectors

But at Pared-Down New York Auctions, Buyers Seek the Rare and Discounted

The week of Asian art auctions that ended Thursday afternoon in New York offered early signs that some collectors, largely from China and India, are returning to the market in search of rare or discounted artworks.

An anonymous Indian collector paid Christie's $1.2 million
for Tyeb Mehta's 'Mahishasura, above the $800,000 high estimate.

New York's chief auction houses -- Christie's International PLC and Sotheby's -- brought in about $55.7 million combined from their Asia Week sales of Chinese vases, jade carvings and Indian miniature paintings. The sales total exceeded their top forecasts of $41.3 million but fell below last year's $157.2 million total.

The global recession has battered the art market, and the auction houses have responded by scaling back their sales. Christie's won this pared-down round by selling $36.5 million, besting Sotheby's $19.2 million. Last week, smaller auctioneer Saffronart brought in $3.7 million from a fall sale of Indian modern and contemporary art, just over its $3.4 million forecast.

Before the recession, auction houses worked overtime to attract new global buyers by emphasizing new works by contemporary Chinese and Indian artists like Zeng Fanzhi and Subodh Gupta. But the Asian collectors shopping for art now are seeking safer bets, preferring traditional pieces from respected collections.

This week, Chinese buyers dominated the bidding, but they competed with collectors in Indonesia, Korea and the United Arab Emirates. Western collectors, credited with pushing up prices for contemporary Asian art five years ago, largely stayed home.

Sotheby's and Christie's both offered pieces owned by the late psychiatrist Arthur M. Sackler, who founded a namesake museum at Harvard. At Sotheby's, an anonymous Asian collector paid $1 million -- nearly six times the high estimate with fees -- for a pair of Huanghuali-style cabinets from the 17th century. Monday, a private Asian collector spent $362,500 at Christie's for Mr. Sackler's bronze ritual food vessel dating to the 12th century B.C., 10 times its high estimate. The total combined take from Mr. Sackler's Asian holdings was $7.8 million.

At Sotheby's, a Han dynasty 'famille-rose' vase from
Gordon Getty's collection sold for $902,500, which was well over its $350,000 high estimate.

Chinese ceramics had the strongest showing of the week. Sotheby's sold a milky celadon jade vase with floral carvings from the Qing dynasty for $926,500, tripling its high estimate. At least four bidders also fought over a fuschia vase owned by collector Gordon Getty, which went to an anonymous bidder in the salesroom for $902,500, exceeding its $350,000 high estimate.

Over at Christie's, several bidders fought over a 1778 wooden inkpaste box carved with poems. An Asian buyer got it for $1.4 million, four times the high estimate.

By comparison, contemporary art was scarce this time around. This year, Sotheby's and Christie's have shifted their stand-alone sales of Chinese contemporary art to Hong Kong, which has eclipsed New York as the top sales hub for Asian art. The New York offerings from India were weighted more heavily toward gilt-bronze Buddhas, Mughal miniatures and modern masters.

Tyeb Mehta, who died in July at the age of 83, still fared well. On Wednesday, Christie's sold the artist's powder-blue portrait, "Two Figures," for $926,500, above expectations. And over at Sotheby's, Mehta's 1976 double portrait, "And Behind Me Desolation," sold Thursday for $350,500, reaching its high estimate.

Subodh Gupta, the most recognizable and highly paid Indian artist to emerge in recent years, was in short supply this week.

At the height of the art boom, his photo-realistic paintings of aluminum pots were selling at auction for more than $1 million each. But Christie's specialist Hugo Weihe said Gupta's collectors don't want to part with his pieces for less than $300,000, a more realistic value for his works now. Saffronart sold an untitled pot painting by Gupta last week for around $209,875.

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