Ellsworth and Asia Week

2015’s Asia Week has proved itself to be one of the most lucrative and exciting art events of the year. A barrage of gallery and museum shows, lectures, and auctions litter the art scene in celebration of artwork from multiple nations. High predictions of sales were reported to be around the $250 million dollar range, in large part owing to the excitement over the Robert Hatfield Ellsworth sale at Christies.

Auction catalogs from four of the Ellsworth auctions via Christie's

Auction catalogs from four of the Ellsworth auctions via Christie's

Ellsworth’s prestigious collection contained Indian, Himalayan, Southeast Asian, Chinese, and Japanese art and is one of the largest of estates Asian art ever to come to auction. Considering that all 57 lots sold in Part I, it appears that this estimate may have been correct - including buyer’s premium this part of the collection totaled $61,107,500.

Gilt Bronze figure of a Seated Bear from China created in the Western Han Dynasty (200 BC – 8 AD)   courtesy of Christie's

Gilt Bronze figure of a Seated Bear from China created in the Western Han Dynasty (200 BC – 8 AD)  courtesy of Christie's

Part I – Masterworks Including Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Works of Art, Chinese & Japanese Works of Art, had the highest selling works of the entire collection. The most expensive of which was the set of four 17th Century Huanghulai Horseshoe-back arm chairs that sold for over $9 million (estimate of $800,000 – $1.2 million). Another work which defied its estimate was the Gilt Bronze figure of a Seated Bear from China created in the Western Han Dynasty (200 BC – 8 AD) which was estimated to sell for between $200,000 to $300,000 and sold for $2.8 million. According to our Asian art specialist collectors were enamored by this small totem - its rare pose and subtle characterization.

However, it was not just Chinese art that did well in the sale. The second highest price was for a large gilt bronze sculpture of Avalokiteshvara from 13th Century Nepal which sold for $8.2 million (estimate of $2-3 million). A “rare and important” bronze figure of a seated Yogi, possibly Padampa Sangye sold for $4.8 million, a little more than $3 million over the high estimate.

Part II, which included Chinese furniture, scholar’s objects, and Chinese paintings, still reached high prices and totaled $39,137,625. Part III – Chinese Works of Art: Qing Ceramics, Glass & Jade totaled $8,189,875, Part IV – Chinese Works of Art: Metal, Sculpture & Early Ceramics $15,840,625, Part V – European Decorative Arts, Carpets, Old Master Paintings & Asian Works of Art $6,207,688 and Part VI – The Library $1,176,875. The extraordinary results of these sales pay tribute to Ellsworth’s genius in the field of Asian art - something for which OTE can attest, as over the years he advised our firms president on the Asian market and, in particular, the estate of C.C. Wang.

The Ellsworth sale has amounted $132 million at auction, no doubt in large part because of the incredible provenance of his collection. As the Asian art market is becoming more overheated and frenzied, provenance is becoming increasingly more important in legitimizing extraordinarily high prices for classical Chinese art.

Although they were arguable overshadowed by the Ellsworth sale at Christie’s, Sotheby’s Asia week sales also did well. Their most successful sale appears to be Fine Classical Chinese Paintings & Calligraphy which netted them $41,441,375.

However Asia week is not just about big sales, it is also an amazing time to learn more about the art history and development of countries throughout Asia. A lecture I attended at the Korean Society, ‘Adoption, Assimilation, Transformation,’ with Robert D. Mowry discussed some of the most important developments in Korea’s art history and its relationship with China.

Geumgang Jeondo (금강전도 金剛全圖) by Jeong Seon

Geumgang Jeondo (금강전도 金剛全圖) by Jeong Seon

During the lecture Mr. Mowry spoke about the distinctly Korean style of landscape paintings typified by the painter Jeong Seon 정선 / 鄭敾 (1676–1759), whose pen name Gyeomjae meant humble study. He lived during the Joseon Dynasty and is one of the few known Korean painters to move away from traditional Chinese styles. Another, Shin Yun-bok (1758-early 19th C), paintings of people reveal a humor that is also uniquely Korean. Their paintings present a contextual history for some of Korea’s modern painters such as An Jung-sik (안중식, 1861-1919).

Scenery on Dano day (단오풍정 端午風情) by Shin Yun-bok , in the Gansong Art Museum in Seoul, South Korea

Scenery on Dano day (단오풍정 端午風情) by Shin Yun-bok , in the Gansong Art Museum in Seoul, South Korea

Overall it was a great week to experience some of the world’s most beautiful art and culture.



Gold, Fine China, and the Truth About Tarnishing

Have you ever wondered what the word “gilding” means? It’s an ultra-sensitive and very beautiful decorative treatment that turns a surface into gold without actually creating something made of gold.

Gilding generally refers to the liquid gold applied through paint or other techniques to porcelain and other ceramics. The good news is that it looks lustrous and lovely when first applied.  The bad news is that it shows wear when used frequently and is sensitive to its environment. In fact, after working with a recent client an O’Toole-Ewald appraiser found that it doesn't always require heavy usage to cause distress to gilding and that the saying that gold never tarnishes can be disproven.

Porcelain saucer with gilding

Porcelain saucer with gilding

About 20 years ago the client bought a beautiful bone china set decorated with extensive and intricate gilding. It had been placed in storage and when she recently retrieved it from the box in which it had been resting for two decades she found that the 24 carat gilding had taken on a red/black discoloration. Tarnishing film often looks red or black in appearance depending on what base metal is used, copper or silver respectively. However, it is extremely rare for high carats of gold to tarnish, so this case was at first a bit of a mystery.

While pure gold is not susceptible to tarnishing, almost all gold is mixed with some small percentage of other alloys, which can be vulnerable to tarnishing would only seen below 14 carats. In some cases 14 and 18 carats or even occasionally higher carats can tarnish, but it is extremely rare in gold as high as 24 carats.

If the base metals, in particular copper or silver, are exposed to corrosive agents, especially sulfur and oxygen compounds, tarnishing is entirely possible. Moisture, perspiration, perfumes, how you wash it, the water in which it is washed and even some foodstuffs can be responsible for the corrosion of gilding. But because the china in this case had never been used, it was unlikely that any of these were the culprits.

Through expertise, persistence and considerable in-depth research, OTE was able to determine the prolonged exposure to the organic sulfur containing compounds in the storage bags, in combination to the oxygen and sulfur in the atmosphere, had caused the gilding to discolor. The damage was determined to be inherent vice resulting from the chemical reaction of the gilding in its storage containers.

 This case is a rarity. In India and the Middle East, especially, there have been more incidents of the tarnishing of higher carat gold, which appears to be a problem more specifically linked to the region. In Europe and North America tarnishing in higher carats of gold is much more unusual. In the past 30 years, there has been only one other instance, filed with the manufacturer of this china, of red and copper discoloration occurring on the gilding. Without the persistent research efforts of OTE appraisers combined with scientific sleuthing, this case may not have been solved.