Blog Archive

Chinese Paintings at Auction

Chinese Paintings At Auction

Everybody with more than a casual interest in Chinese paintings and the  market for them will have heard by now about the extraordinary results of the Sotheby’s New York auction on  March 22 of “Fine Classical Chinese Paintings.” The total sales totaled $35,163,000, nearly double the high estimates combined. Quite a few of the paintings sold for prices many times the estimates; it would appear that buyers (and especially buyers from China) are willing to spend huge amounts to get the pieces they want. Since four of the paintings in the sale were labeled as former Ching Yuan Chai collection--that was my old studio name, given me by Shujiro Shimada back in 1953 when I  was a  Fulbright student in Kyoto (see Reminiscence no. 6 on this  website)--the assumption has been that the paintings are mine. It’s  true that they once were mine, among my treasures; but for quite a few years they have belonged to my daughter Sarah, part of the group of fifteen paintings that she chose when I made up a group of some thirty for her and Nicholas to  choose from. Sarah sold those four--keeping her real favorites-- to raise money for family purposes, and, happily, came out quite well.

I am here in Berkeley for the months of March and April, and my twin sons Julian and Benedict, now sixteen, are with me for a week; we had a session at the Berkeley Art Museum looking at some thirty paintings that they will choose from, in the same way. Alas, I don’t today have paintings of the caliber of those that went to Nick and Sarah , but the ones they saw and will choose between are still fine things in their lesser way. We will do the choosing tomorrow, with flips of a coin determining who gets first choice in each category (two major paintings, a small group of Ming-Qing paintings, a few Japanese paintings, some fine works by recent Chinese artists.) Doing it this way, instead of simply giving them the paintings, should afford them the pride of owning pieces they chose themselves.

Getting back to the auction: a group of calligraphy fans and album leaves written by Southern Song emperors (or by their court calligraphers--not a calligraphy buff myself, I’m never sure--they were obliged to turn them out in huge numbers to use as gifts, and employed ghost-calligraphers) sold  for $5.7 million. A group of fine Ming-Qing paintings owned by Cecile Mactaggart, from the extensive collection that she and her husband Sandy put together--most of it went to the University of Alberta for their art museum--sold for very high prices, and I had a  long and happy email from Cecile the next morning,  reminiscing about a wonderful weekend that Hsingyuan and I had spent long  ago at their place in Alberta,  along with the New York dealer Robert Ellsworth and Roderick  Whitfield and his wife, going through their whole collection and offering comments on the authenticity and quality of the pieces, for their cataloging purposes. I remember sitting (with my flash camera, making slides) over a lovely small album by the Anhui-school artist Zheng Min--he is the one who opens my Painter’s  Practice book,  where I  contrast the standard idealized account of him--living aloof from the  world, painting to  express his lofty feelings, giving his paintings freely to his  friends, etc.--with the realities of his life as revealed in his recently-discovered diary, which tells of  his seeking commissions, taking on odd  jobs, depending on his paintings to survive, wondering how he will get through the year. And Zheng Min was one of the little-known small masters included in our “Shadows of Mt. Huang” exhibition and catalog of 1981. Now this album by him was acquired for a big price by the Metropolitan Museum, with a happy statement issued by Mike Hearn. (Smart acquisition, congratulations.)

Also in the auction was the great Chen Hongshou handscroll representing the “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove,” once owned by Walter Hochstadter, sold in a Hong Kong auction some years ago but then returned by the buyer, who produced a letter signed by two prominent Shanghai Museum curators pronouncing it to be an obvious fake; the buyer’s money was refunded, and the painting  went to Walter’s heirs, who live in Australia.  They contacted me, as a longtime supporter of the painting, and I wrote for  them a notarized affadavit expressing my  confidence in the authenticity and importance of the painting. This time is sold for $1,650,000, more than twice the high estimate--I have no idea who bought it, but he or she spent the money wisely. It is the centerpiece of a forthcoming lecture in our second video-lecture series “Gazing Into the Past.”

No.  647, a landscape with figure painted in 1662 by Shitao--at least according to the inscription--went for $146,000--again, more than twice the high estimate. Painted in a rather free and sketchy style, it bears a seal of Zhang Daqian, and if I had been able to see it in the original I could have confirmed or dispelled, to  my own satisfaction at least, the sense that it might be  one of Zhang’s many forgeries of Shitao. And I found myself wondering: did some knowing buyer, aware of Zhang’s authorship, acquire it for that high price as his work?  Not impossible in today’s world of fervent Zhang Daqian admirers who don’t mind spending a million or two to add a painting by him to their collections. But, as I say, this is only a loose impression formed without seeing the original--not to taken seriously as a judgment.

All of this happened in a world that otherwise seems, these days, little interested in Chinese painting. During the active decades of my career Chinese painting seemed to occupy the center of attention in the world of Asian art, with exhibitions and symposia, major scholars devoting themselves to it, controversies and discoveries. No longer--now the focus of attention seems to have shifted (quite properly, and in an entirely healthy way) to Buddhist art, early Chinese art, an admiration for objects over those flat, dark old rectangles that so occupied us--and to the art of India, the Middle East, Southeast Asia. A recent NYTimes full page showing notable objects of Asian Art in the Met included no Chinese paintings at all. And as for our video-lecture series, offering the first-ever comprehensive visual history of this greatest (along with European painting) pictorial tradition in world art--as noted in my previous Bitter Blog on Art--no notice at all, no response to a second press release. Thousands of viewers (nearly three thousand for the first lecture so far), enthusiastic responses sent to me (a happy recipient) by email--but nothing in the popular press or magazines to reflect this success and to attract further viewers. Well, I should count my blessings, which are many. A great week spent with my sons Julian and Benedict here in Berkeley ends tomorrow when they fly home. And more blessings of other kinds than I can count, more than will fit neatly into this long blog, which accordingly ends here. I  will try to have another  ready  to post at least by April first (April Fool’s Day--I  must think of how to celebrate that.)

Latest Work

  • Conclusion Conclusion
    VI Conclusion It is time to draw back and look, if not at the whole Hyakusen, at as much of him as we have managed to illuminate in this study. Dark areas remain, and doubtless many distortions, but...

Latest Blog Posts

  • Bedridden Blog
    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...