With an eye to the East
London dealers are determined to stay on top of the Asian art market. Susan Moore reports
Tripod censer with peonies, Kangxi yuzhi (1662-1722), on show at the Royal Academy in November, above, and below, pair of paper screens, Kano School, 18th century, at Gregg Baker Oriental Ar t So much hot air has reverberated around the rise of the Asian art market in New York in recent years that even collec- tors might be forgiven for presuming that London has had its day. Moreover, it looked as though the huge London-based Asian art trade was ceding the city's tradi- tional pre-eminence without so much as a whimper.
It all began with the auction houses. Ever since Sotheby's Julian Thompson first pio- neered Western-style auctions in Hong Kong in the early Seventies, it seems that both Sotheby's and Christie's chose to Carved ceiling panel wood and polychrome, Gujarat, 17th century, at Maharukh Desai develop first the Far Eastern and then the New York market at the expense of Lon- don. Then, three years ago, the hugely suc- cessful International Asian Art Fair was launched alongside Asia Week in the New York salerooms, and London provided almost half the exhibitors. Even Giuseppe Eskenazi, one of the world's most respect- ed Oriental art dealers, anglophile and champion of the London market, appeared to turn renegade. For the last two years he has staged spectacular exhibitions in a rent- ed space on the Upper East Side, dismayed by the lack of opposition to proposed fur- ther harmonisation of taxes within the EU, taxes which threaten the very existence of an important art market anywhere in the Union.
Behind the scenes, though, the Asian art trade in London began to rally. It was felt by Eskenazi and others that what happened to London would depend on them. Next month, they orchestrate what the dealer Michael Goedhuis describes as a tough rearguard action. Over 40 of the city's lead- ing dealers join forces with the four big auction houses, leading museums and the wider academic community to stage 'Asian Art in London' (10-21 November). This impressive series of museum and dealer exhibitions, auctions, seminars, lectures, recitals and receptions is intended to remind the world of the unrivalled exper- tise, and range and depth of material on offer, both on the market and in London's exceptional museum collections, some cele- brated, others little known. There will be enough going on in London to tempt even the busiest of enthusiasts or collectors.
Expertise, as this initiative recognises, is the heart and life-blood of a sound art mar- ket. In Britain, it has evolved around some of the greatest institutional collections in the West, collections enriched by genera- tions of connoisseurs, and out of London's long-held position as the clearing house of world art. Both traditions continue to flourish in London as nowhere else in Europe. New York, in contrast, offers a wealth of Asian art collectors but relatively few scholars, a handful of world-class Asian art dealers and just two intense, glamorous weeks of commercial activity a year.
Jingoistic though it sounds, no other cap- ital in the world could lay on such a feast as this. At dealers Speelman, for instance, is a show of Buddhist Sculpture and Works of Art; at Sydney Moss, Japanese Paintings of the Edo Period. John Eskenazi presents Gandhara Art from the lst-4th Century. The Textile Gallery is showing at Colnaghi Tex- tile Art from the Silk Road, 200 BC to AD 1600. Spink offers a collection of Chinese blue and white; Sam Fogg examples of manuscripts and printing; Danart, gold jew- ellery from South East Asia. And so it goes on, with each of the participating dealers presenting a show (for a guidebook with details of all events, telephone 0171-293 6444).
It was the organisers' aim to encourage people into the galleries rather than bring the dealers under a single roof, and in order to facilitate gallery-hopping, three late-night openings have been arranged in London's main Asian art-dealing neigh- bourhoods. On the 16th, it is Mayfair, on the 17th, St James's. The following day, the spotlight moves to Kensington Church Street and environs. Don't miss, too, the inaugural show of Chinese Ming and Qing period furniture at Hong Kong dealer Grace Wu Bruce's new Mayfair gallery (12A Balfour Mews), perhaps the biggest recent vote of confidence in the London art market.
The auction houses are playing their part, as sponsors of exhibitions, seminars and lec- tures, and as salerooms fielding strong sales. Christie's ices the cake of its regular November auctions with its first-ever sale devoted to the art of the Ming Dynasty, plus 'Asian Art for the Country House', and a private American collection of Japanese kakiemon porcelain. It sponsors China- Mania at Kensington Palace State Apart- ments, a reconstruction of William and Mary's famed porcelain gallery. Sotheby's Institute is host to a three-day symposium on the export of Chinese porcelain around the world, with contributions from distin- guished international experts.
The centrepiece of the proceedings, how- ever, is a loan exhibition at the Royal Academy of arguably the finest collection of Chinese Imperial ceramics in private hands (reputably finer than many a public collection, too). Never before exhibited or published, the Au Bak Ling Collection, formed by a self-educated Hong Kong edu- cational publisher, is a coup for the organ- isers, spanning 600 years or so of production but concentrating on the glorious porcelains made for the Ming and Qing emperors. It comes under the auspices of Asia House, a body aiming to forge closer cultural and business links between Britain and Asia.
Lovers of Chinese porcelain will also have an opportunity to enjoy the world- class collections of London University's Percival David Foundation. It presents Rare Marks on Chinese Porcelain, and a two-day seminar examining its holdings. The Percival David deserves a wider repu- tation, so too does the university's relative- ly new Brunei Gallery at SOAS. Its current temporary show is Treasures from Kuwait: the Al Sabah Collection of Islamic Art.
If anyone is left on their feet by the 20th, they can dip into their pockets for the high- profile black-tie gala dinner promised at the V&A (Queen Noor of Jordan as guest of honour, David Tang the after-dinner speaker), in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital's Centre for International Child Health. Part of the point of the event is to remind collectors that London is a safe, civilised and genial place to be.