Sunday, March 22, 2015

Asia Week, New York, March 2015, over heard trash talk!

I was just in NYC earlier this week, to preview the Ellsworth Collection sale at Christie’s and see Asia Week. On view in different galleries, mostly on the Upper East Side, are a range of dealers, from Europe as well as New York and America, covering the full gamut of Asian art, from ancient to contemporary, and from Japan, Korea to Indian and Southeast Asian, and of course Chinese.  I focus on the few dealers who handle ancient art.  One of them was exhibiting at Friedman Vallois, on East 67th Street and Madison Avenue, from Milan, Dalton Somare. I am not familiar with them, but was very impressed with what they had on view, see below.

Gandharan Head of a Buddha
  Prominently featured and very well displayed was this immense colossal head of a Buddha, Gandharan, from India, 2nd to 3rd Century A.D.  Carved of grey schist, it is 68 cm tall, about 27 inches.  A fragment from a larger sculpture, possibly a composite sculpture, it is a very imposing head.  And beautiful.
side view of the Gandharan Buddha head

While generally classical in style, as Gandharan art is, it has a very Indian cast of features. Highly stylized the eyes are strongly projecting, and the lips sensuously curved, the eyebrows arched and the nose straight.  The surfaces are polished to a soft sheen, which I have seen on some Gandharan schist sculptures but not that often. It is a really beautiful and impressive head.  They had a few other very good and unusual pieces as well, but this stood out. 

I went from this exhibition to another further up Madison Avenue, to a small gallery who also handles Gandharan art, but of a much more modest scale.  There were a few people there engaged in conversation, a visitor and a man who I took to be the dealer.  The visitor was saying that one had to be so careful of fakes and the dealer responded that when you see a piece so large and exceptional, you have to be suspicious. He could only be talking about the head I just saw.  The coincidence was pretty amazing, but I wasn’t particularly surprised, this head was a stand out, and would attract interest and talk.  However, the opinion of the dealer is one of the things that is wrong with the market, and illustrates how it operates.

This type of casual talk is poisonous to the market. It feeds off the insecurity and ignorance of the buyers, but ultimately, damages faith in the market. From what I could see Dalton Somare are serious dealers who take what they do seriously. The pieces were very select and fine and were very well displayed.  I am sure they do their due diligence and get expert opinions from scholars and perhaps even scientific examinations. I would want both types of opinions and reports on something as extraordinary as this head is.  To tell a buyer that the piece is a fake is unfair, but typical of how dealers undercut each other.  And who is to say differently?  Unless you already know a great deal and are confident of your eye and opinion, it is easy to be swayed but such negative opinions.  And it is corrosive.  I believe it is driven by jealousy.  The dealer so opining had minor pieces in comparison, very nice, pretty, but relatively insignificant in comparison.  No wonder he felt he need to put down this other dealer.

My word of advise to my reader is when you hear a dealer tell you something you just saw is a fake that you think is noteworthy, be suspicious, not of the piece but of the dealer.  They probably have an agenda, and it isn’t pursuit of the truth.

Amazing results, the Robert Ellsworth sale at Christies March 2015

Robert Ellsworth was a pioneering dealer of Chinese and Asian art in New York from the 1960’s into the 1990’s. I unfortunately never got to know him, I did meet him briefly at an art fair, and was impressed by his emerald green jade set in a high karat gold ring. I was told by a friend who would know, that the jade was of such fine color and quality that it was worth 2 million, and this was in the 1990’s!  I never got to see his apartment, which was legendary, large and on Fifth Avenue, full of fine antique American and Chinese furniture and of course, Asian antiquities.  When he died last year, the extensive obituaries lauded his taste and importance as a dealer in early Asian art, and his social connections.

Christie’s got his estate to sell, and did so just this week, in a series of  6 sales over 5 days, the last day being today as I write this.  The sale has been eagerly anticipated by myself and everyone involved in the trade of Asian antiquities. Particularly exciting to me was the inclusion of a number of good early Chinese Buddhist sculptures, which you don’t often see coming up at auction. 

Lot 755 from the Christie's Ellsworth auction

One of the pieces caught the eye of my best client, and that was lot 755, a small limestone statue of Buddha, broken above the ankles and missing its right hand.  It is Chinese, from the Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D., limestone, and 18 1/4 inches tall. It has extensive remains of paint and some gold leaf, which add to its appeal.  I was poised to bid on the piece, which was estimated $40,000. to $60,000., and I was ready go above the estimate by a bit.  I didn’t get a chance to even bid, the little Buddha sold for 1.5 million dollars hammer price, which doesn’t include the 20% buyer premium! This is an amazing price for what is a sweet, but modest example of Northern Qi sculpture.  I have bought and sold much better examples for a fraction of this price. 

One wonders at this extraordinarily high price, probably a record for this type of sculpture at auction, certainly a record for a piece of this size and condition of this period.  The provenance had a lot to do with it, but should that really justify pricing a piece that I would expect to be priced at $50,000., or $60,000., to sell for 1.5 million?

Robert Ellsworth was a great dealer, and one assumes that his pieces were purchased a number of years ago, but frequently the catalog simply stated for this piece and many others, "The collection of Robert H. Ellsworth, New York, before 2000" What this really means, Christie's had no idea of when exactly or from whom Robert Ellsworth had purchased the piece.  It is safe bet that it was before 2000 simply because of his advanced age and that he had essentially retired from dealing by this time.  However, it is hardly the type of precisely documented provenance that the auction houses claim to require to sell pieces! The reality is that the "collection" was really the leavings of a great dealers inventory, the pieces he didn't sell while active, rather than a collection in the sense of a deliberate gathering of the finest pieces for ones own pleasure of ownership.  Even so, it was an impressive group of objects amongst which were some real gems.  Christie's gave it the full "Liz Taylor" treatment, a hagiography at the beginning of each of the 6 volumes of the full set of the print catalogs which were printed in a larger size than normal.  The display incorporated some of the antique furniture and other objects that Robert Ellsworth had in his home, and the catalog had lots of glamorous views of his 960 Fifth Avenue apartment, showing how he lived with the pieces. 

Robert Ellsworth had the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time.  He formed friendships with people who were able to advance his career early on, starting in the 1940's, and was dealing when the art market was really just forming for Asian art in Post War America.  He bought his apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue in 1975, when someone who was just rich, but not super-rich, could buy a great apartment in NYC.  From there he entertained and showed his wares in grand style.  He had the means and the courage to purchase the legendary Christian Humann collection, called the Pan Asian Collection, in 1981.  This gave him the inventory for his career. Christian Humann was an heir to the Lazard family banking fortune, who created the Pan Asian collection. I was told by Matthias Komor, who knew all of these people, and for who I worked for in the early 1980's, that Christian Humann's family was very disappointed that upon his death, there was no money but an apartment full of Asian Art.  It was considered one of the greatest collections of early Asian art ever assembled, and Ellsworth's purchase of it was a stroke of genius.  However, the little Northern Qi Buddha, lot 755, was not from the Pan Asian collection, nor were many of the pieces in the auction. 

I think this illustrates one of the facts of the art market, particularly for antiquities, its irrationality.  I’m happy to see a Chinese Buddhist sculpture sell for so much, it helps validate what I’m dealing in. However, I don’t expect to get this type of price, although I wish I could!

A story of two Busts in the Metropolitan Museum

I want to start addressing in my posts, one of the central issues in dealing with ancient objects, that is authenticity, and how what role it plays in the market.  To start, I will tell the story of two exceptional Roman portrait busts, now proudly on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Bust of Matidia the Younger, sister of Sabina

Bust of Sabina

These wonderful portraits busts date to the reign of Hadrian, ca 122 - 128 A.D., are complete, including their socle bases, and in superb condition. They do however have a heavy dark encrustation that has proven difficult and potentially damaging to remove, and so has been left on. You can see on the left cheek of Matidia where an attempt was made to scrape it off, and the attempt seems to have been abandoned when it was clear that it was damaging the ancient surface underneath.  Heavy encrustation notwithstanding, these are beautiful sculptures of the highest quality attainable in the Roman period, or any time.  The surfaces that are exposed are gorgeous, with their original soft polish and finish preserved.  I have always admired these busts, and I have known them for decades.

It is nice when ones advanced age becomes an asset, and in this case, it is. I have been involved in the antiquities world long enough to have seen these busts sold twice, and on view at the Metropolitan Museum twice.  The first time was in 1983, at Sotheby's New York, lots 121 and 123. Listed as "property of various owners", they both sold for $154,000., which includes the buyers commission.  At the time, that was a fairly high price, but not outrageously so.  Their provenance was very mysterious, it was rumored amongst the dealers that they came from an unnamed Mexican collection.  Somewhat hard to believe, as their quality and condition would have merited attention from the scholarly world had they been at all publicly known of.  However apparently they weren't, popping up at Sotheby's New York for sale.

Sotheby's June 10&11, 1983 catalog page

Sotheby's June 10&11, 1983 catalog page

 They were purportedly purchased by Basia Johnson, who was collecting mostly old masters, but also some antiquities.  However it was rumored that she never took delivery of the busts, because the dealers who she was buying antiquities from, Robin Symes and Christo Michaelides told her they were fakes. When told this I was incredulous, everything about these busts spoke of their authenticity, their beauty, the perfect ancient style they are carved in, and their condition. While the encrustation was marring, it seemed incontrovertible evidence of their antiquity to me, this type of patina take millennia to form. It was also hard to understand why Robin Symes would damn them, except for they didn't come from him, and he didn't want Basia Johnson purchasing from anywhere but his gallery.  Even at auction evidently. Fortunately, Robin's damning of them didn't carry weight with the Metropolitan Museum, who put them on exhibit, for several years from 1984 to 1989.

A little more than decade after the first sale, the portrait busts came up again at Sotheby's New York, where Robin Symes condemnation apparently meant little.  This was in the December 14th, 1994 New York sale, lots 90 and 91.

December 14, 1994 Sotheby's sale catalog page

December 14, 1994 Sotheby's sale catalog page

This time the busts sold for $290,000., each, hammer price, so the buyers premium would have been added to that. I was in the room, and thus got only the hammer price at the time they sold.  Then, about a year later, they re-appeared on view at the Metropolitan Museum of art, on loan this time from the Dubroff family.  Mr. Dubroff has been purchasing antiquities, only from auction, and loaning pieces to museums. There are a number of his pieces currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, these being two of his best pieces. 

The point of this tale is a cautionary one about how questions of authenticity are used by dealers to sabotage other dealers, and control collectors. There can really be no real question about these busts antiquity, they were raised simply to undercut a buyer's willingness to buy from someone, anyone else, but them.  This is more frequent than one would like to believe and should make one skeptical when you hear a dealer talking about an object being fake that is beautiful and otherwise seems right.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Dating a Statue of the Buddha

A Standing Buddha Statue

Standing Buddha.
China, Northern Qi to Sui Dynasty, 570 - 600 A.D.
Limestone, Height: 43 inches.

This statue of a Buddha is just under life sized, 43 inches in total, with both arms broken off where the hands would have projected.  The quality of the sculpture is very high, the forms are sensuous and the head is sensitively carved and beautiful.  While the form of the Buddha is standard and familiar, the dating of this piece is actually not so straightforward. I will analyze the piece and show parallels to attempt to place it in time.

The form of the Buddha with the robes having low relief folds close to the body forming a column, and the elegant restraint of the overall figure, generally date the sculpture to the late 6th Century.  However, certain elements of the face, ushnisha, and the folds of the robe are not typical of the Northern Qi, 550 - 577 A.D., but may indicate a date just after, making this a transitional style sculpture.  I will take each element separately to attempt to place it more exactly.

One dates a sculpture from the head, so we will start there.  

The cranial lump which is a mark of the Buddha’s transcendent wisdom, the ushnisha , here is defined and distinct, although subtly so. During the Northern Qi Dynasty, the ushnisha is melded into the overall form of the head to create more of a cone head, but here, it is clearly defined, even if only just so.

The long lobes of the ears are a marker of the Buddha, found in all periods of Buddhist sculpture.

The face is rounded, and distinctly Chinese looking with its full cheeks, small full mouth and small nose.  The features are highly stylized, the eyes are swooping curves, under arched brows. The chin is small, and slightly double chinned, you can barely make out the line defining it underneath it. The neck is smooth and columnar, with no fat rings, as are found more commonly after the Northern Qi. The face, with its rounded form is moving towards the fullness developed in the Tang Dynasty, but the clarity and elegance of it is still Northern Qi. 

Based on the slightly distinct but still subtle ushnisha, the fullness and Chinese appearance of the face, and smooth neck, I feel we have a late Northern Qi sculpture here, whose style anticipates the later developments in Chinese sculpture, almost a transitional piece.

Another stylistic feature that helps to place this statue in time is the treatment of the robe, which has low relief crisp folds and is close to the body.  On each upper arm below the shoulder are a pair of folds which flow down the upper arms in an S shaped, almost flame like, curving line.  Symmetrically mirroring each other, they frame the central torso.  This feature is found in two marble Buddha statues that I have found, which are dated to the Sui Dynasty, 581-618 A.D., see below.

Similarly the treatment of the bottom hems of the robes is helpful in dating. While the lower left side is broken off, enough survives of the right side to see that the robe ended in a series of scrolling curves for the ends of the vertical pleats of the robe, echoing the scrolling hem of the outer robe above.  On the left side the outer robe bottom has a central pleat whose hem forms a spade shape, flanked by curves on either side.  The under robe, whose hem is lower is broken off on that side, but it no doubt mirrored the other side, rather than followed the upper robes folds. This is partly due to the asymmetrical treatment of the folds crossing the body from left to right in curving descending arches.  

Above is an image of a Buddha statue in the Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum, dated to 577 A.D., which would be the end of the Northern Qi, to early Northern Zhou Dynasties.  You can see the folds on each upper arm which come from a vertical, before curving down, mirroring each other. The scrolling wave pattern of the lower under robe lower hem relates to ours, as well. The overall columnar form created by the robes close to the body, with the crisp shallow folds is quite similar to our statue.  However the head is quite different, they eyes in particular do not have the curving upward flame like curving form as in our sculpture. 

This colossal statue is in the British Museum, Chinese, and which has an inscription dating it to 585 A.D., early Sui Dynasty.  It is carved of marble, and stands 5.78 meters tall, nearly 19 feet high. It is a truly magnificent statue, unfortunately displayed in a stairwell at the British Museum, so you cannot get a good view of it.

The overall columnar form of the statue with its crisp low relief folds falling across the body, and the mirroring folds along the upper arms, relate to our statue.  The scrolling wave pattern of the lower hems of the upper robe and larger waves of the under, lower robe, are similar but more stylized than in our sculpture. The head of the BM statue is quite different, more hieratic and remote, than the warmer curves and expression on our statue.  This helps to put our statue within the Northern Qi style, perhaps late, or transitional, just at the end of that period.