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.



Fragments of Adam: an OTE Case

The separated head and torso looked disconcertingly familiar to me when they appeared in a photo on the front page of The New York Times on Sunday, November 9th. “Recreating Adam, From Hundreds of Fragments, After the Fall.”

Screen capture of the New York Times article 

Screen capture of the New York Times article 

The history of how it happened, the secrecy that ensued, the resurrection, and finally, revelation is the plot of this terrifying tale of Tullio Lombardo’s great Renaissance marble masterpiece. I hadn’t felt able to speak about it in detail for 12 years. A promise is a promise.

After the fall, when the initial horror of the museum staff had worn off, but only slightly, a few of us,  engineers , technicians and art specialists, were called upon to render professional opinions about what had gone wrong and what was going to be done about it. I and a colleague from this firm were led, as if to a chamber of horrors, into the conservation laboratory where the sculpture lay, shattered  yet still magnificent .

The papers write of it as if it had been scattered in a thousand fragments across the marble floor of the Velez Blanco Patio at the Met, but I remember it as retaining recognition as a very late 15th century Lombardo, head and much of the torso and one leg intact. I can’t recall exactly because I had to turn over all my photographs immediately after our report was rendered. Those were the days before digital where nothing dies. I guess those were the “28 recognizable pieces” that Met conservator Jack Soultanian mentioned in the newspaper article. The rubble had been bagged and identified.

From time to time, from hushed voices, we learned a little about what was going on in the lab, but very little. Massive amount of research were undertaken by this firm and we traced the sculpture back to its original site. The Renaissance scholar on staff, Leatrice Mendelsohn, was amazing in her pursuit of all the critical information required to help me arrive at a value of the sculpture before the fall and how much the piece had lost in value because of the damage.

A few months later I sat at an endlessly long wood table in a secluded section of the Met of which I had not been previously aware, facing what seemed to be an endlessly long  line of dark suited attorneys representing the multiple organizations and firms involved in the disaster.  Oddly enough, I don’t remember being scared because I was so overwhelmed by the grandeur of the setting, with light streaming down behind the group of what appeared to be judge types sitting to my left. I felt like it was an old Warner Brothers film about the trial of Charles the First.

Okay, not to prolong this because, after all, I survived and am writing this blog now. I mean, I wasn’t the one at fault anyway. I didn’t push Adam off his pedestal. The fact that its six foot three, one thousand pound marble body had been standing for so many years on a modest wooden pedestal might have had something to do with the disaster.

So it was with relief that I found that the Met has decided to open the floodgates of information, always a wise course to take, and one that suddenly seems in favor at major museums nationally. So much better than having misinformation leaking out in bits and pieces and that can prove far more detrimental than a simple admission and explanation.

I wonder if reality shows have been influencing all of us.

Written by Elin Lake-Ewald

A Visit with Scotland Yard

Fortunately, I wasn't under arrest when my fellow appraiser Ellen Epstein and I spent the morning in Scotland Yard last week.  We were in London for the Arts and Antiques PG Board Meeting, for the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and were visiting Scotland Yard on official appraisal business. 

At Scotland Yard my colleague from RICS and I, met Detective Sergeant Claire Hutcheon, head of the “Organized and Economic Crime Command – Art & Antiques Unit.” Detective Hutcheon, an attractive woman who has worked for Scotland Yard for more than 14 years, discussed with us some of the experiences she had had in her career; but like much of police work un-publishable until the perpetrator is behind bars.

However, as representatives of RICS Personal Property/Art & Antiques Committee we were specifically interested in the professional standards for valuers (appraisers) in London. For example: what does it take to be taken seriously by the police if asked to value stolen or missing works of art?  Compared to the USA, Europe’s requirements for appraisers are far below those of US practitioners, something that is readily admitted by everyone in the London art world. In some countries there are no discernible standards at all. However, Detective Hutcheon mentioned that England and France were working towards an agreement that would raise the level of professional standards.

Change seems to be in the air. Those with whom we spoke – police, attorneys, non-profit organizations, and representatives of professional entities, stated that they hope for a tightening of the rules governing appraisals by independent appraisers.  We were told that at the moment, the only due diligence generally performed is through the Art Loss Register, which affirms whether a work has been stolen. 

View from the roof of the RICS building in Parliament Square

View from the roof of the RICS building in Parliament Square

It is anticipated that this will change with the implementation of The Red Book, which would be an international source of regulations and standards for appraisers worldwide. This document would help to unify standards globally, whether dealing with real estate or fine art.  Even now regulations are being standardized internationally, as are the ethical rules imposed on all practitioners.  It may not be long before The Red Book becomes required reading for those internationally who have any participation in the world of art.

There are well over 160,000 RICS members worldwide and growing.  At the moment there are relatively few practitioners in America, but the world is opening up and I can see a future where there are singular and stringent regulations regarding good business practice in all nations. Sort of a One World concept, but not altogether so bad a thought.

Written by Elin Lake-Ewald

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.

Growth in the Art Market

Something strange is happening all over the art world and I’m trying to figure it out. Maybe I hadn’t been noticing all that much, but I started thinking about it a couple of weeks ago when I attended an American Art auction at Sotheby’s and a small Norman Rockwell nostalgic painting sold for $2.2 million, of course a record and a wake up call to start looking at a few other sales that weren’t Contemporary Art.

What I’ve discovered is a consistently rising market for many kinds of art that normally don’t attract the mass market, causing me to think that money is being invested in work that is not exactly affordable for the ordinary Joe, but could be a bargain for serious collectors if they are comparing it to what is going on at the evening sales at the auction houses.

 

Just this morning I was looking at the results of the Antiquities sale at Sotheby’s:

Marble torso of a young satyr estimated at $50,000-80,000, sold for $329,000

Egyptian bronze figure of Harpocrates-Somtous estimated at $30,000-50,000, sold for $137,000

Hellenistic marble head of a woman estimated at $20,000-30,000, sold for $112,500

Two small Egyptian polychrome figures estimated at $7,000-10,000, sold for $53,125

 

At the Sotheby’s Old Master sale:

Antwerp Mannerist School painting estimated at $100,000-150,000, sold for $257,000

Gillis Mostraert painting estimated at $4,000-6,000, sold for $43,750

Circle of Jan Wellens de Cock painting estimated at $30,000-50,000, sold for $106,250

Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s small painting estimated at $700,000-900,000, sold for $2,285,000

 

These were not aberrational sales, but a reflection of the overall sales, and I am finding this repeated in the sales of other categories of art, i.e., paintings, sculpture, objects of art. I’ll be checking out the other areas now that I’m alerted to the rush towards obtaining physical proof of where someone’s money has gone rather than investing in the more ephemeral ink on paper representing stocks, bonds, gold and whatever.

The other day when someone told me her son was so interested in art I remarked that so was everyone else. It probably  wasn’t until the 1970s and Scull auction sales that the general public was alerted to the fact that paintings could fetch a good deal of money. Then the world seemed to sit up to look a little more closely at the art market. Interest gradually rose, but the wild prices of the late 1980s and the 1990s really caught their attention.  And as I told the lady, everyone today is interested in art. But it is because of a growing appreciation of it or the prices it brings?