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Ancient Chinese art: the great fortunes want more

Slightly on the sidelines of the record-breaking mega-sales that Christie's organises periodically throughout the year, the one to be held in Paris on 13 and 14 December entitled "From Beijing to Versailles, the V.W.S. Collection: A Family's Odyssey in the 20th Century" promises to attract the great Chinese fortunes that are finally back in Europe.

Cristina D’Agostino

By Cristina D’Agostino08 novembre 2022

Some pieces from the "From Beijing to Versailles, the V.W.S Collection" held in Paris in December 2022 (Christie's)

These objects were often collected by soldiers, diplomats and engineers who lived in China and brought them back to Europe

Camille de Foresta, specialist and auctioneer in Christie's Asian art department in Paris

They don't make the headlines in the media, but they attract the great Chinese fortunes. It is a fact that Chinese art sales are popular and attract a very specific audience. Few Westerners are interested in and familiar with them. However, the particularity of ancient Asian art objects is that they do not come from one collection, but from many different sources, scattered throughout Europe, belonging to families for generations, often without knowing that they represent real treasures. Yes, the myth of a trinket deemed useless and forgotten in a trunk in the attic exists and can turn out to be an important piece of art. This was recently the case for a group of young family members who were gathered in their country home one rainy day. In a suitcase, a number of unsuspected 17th century Chinese objects turned out to be worth several million euros at auction at Christie's (The Henry Mazot Collection).

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The collection is marked by the great number of extraordinary white, yellow and pale celadon jades (Christie's)

These objects considered as bridges between the East and the West also have a high value at auction

Camille de Foresta, specialist and auctioneer in Christie's Asian art department in Paris

Camille de Foresta, a specialist and auctioneer in Christie's Asian art department in Paris, has many such stories to tell. "These objects were often collected by soldiers, diplomats and engineers who lived in China and brought them back to Europe. They are many beautiful stories of objects hidden in attics. It is important to know that Chinese porcelain, for example, was considered an incomparable and very rare luxury item, because its manufacture was unknown in Europe until the middle of the 18th century and the discovery of the kaolin component. Today, these objects considered as bridges between the East and the West also have a high value at auction."

Ancient Asian art, a must for the Chinese collector

Unlike London, New York or Hong Kong, the market is considered to be very young in continental Europe, because until 2007, Asian art objects sold at Christie's were scattered among furniture and art sales and did not constitute a department in their entirety. From 2002 onwards," explains Camille de Foresta, "the Chinese in China, and especially in Taiwan and Hong Kong, began to take an interest and to bid against traditional Western buyers. Prices started to rise. There was even a peak in activity from 2010 to 2012 when everything sold at high prices. This was the time of the boom in Islamic art and Orientalism. Then the market stabilised in a high range. Today, sales are more selective, objects are rarer to find."

The imperial quality of the jade and porcelain is a testament to the collector’s keen eye and in-depth knowledge of the medium (Christie's)

Today, 95% of buyers of ancient Asian art are Chinese

Camille de Foresta, specialist and auctioneer in Christie's Asian art department in Paris

Since China opened up to the world economy in the 1990s, followed by its accession to the WTO in 2001, China's new fortunes are interested in reconstructing their history through their ancient art objects. Today, 95% of buyers of ancient Asian art are Chinese and 85% of them are from mainland China, the rest are from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore," says Camille de Foresta. In 2010, when I started, the proportion was the opposite. When the new Chinese collector starts a collection, he first buys what he knows, namely ancient Chinese art, then contemporary art from his country, then when the collector wants to exist on an international scale, he starts a collection of modern and contemporary Western art. All my clients since 2010 have gone down this path. Some have of course developed a real knowledge of Asian art. But they also like to play in the big league, by betting on major pieces of contemporary art, but also luxury objects. The percentage of Christie's turnover that comes from Chinese collectors is colossal."

Since the 2000s, there has been a need for the Chinese to reappropriate Asian art

The Christie's sale offers a set of nearly 300 lots with an estimate of over €7 million (Christie's)

There is therefore a real need for cultural reappropriation, in the path of the Chinese art collector, of pieces that often left Chinese territory in the 1920s to 1930s, to feed Western collections. But on this subject, Camille de Foresta adds: "There are of course war trophies, statues and objects that give rise to discussion, that's undeniable, but the objects that arrived through the wars, particularly the opium war in the 19th century, are only a tiny fraction. And there are no colonisation issues with China. Unfortunately, with the Chinese revolution, the craftsmen lost their know-how. The only thing that is beautiful today is what could be saved in Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek. The finest of these can be seen in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. These objects testify to the magnificence of the artistic work under the Qing dynasties of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Yes, the Chinese are reclaiming their objects. It is a natural path."

The Chinese love auctions. They like to bid, to have the impression that they are making a deal, a discovery; they are very playful

Camille de Foresta, specialist and auctioneer in Christie's Asian art department in Paris

The "From Beijing to Versailles, the V.W.S Collection" sale on 13-14 December will feature a collection profiled to attract major collectors. Christie's will offer for sale a highly unusual set of nearly 300 lots with an estimate of over €7 million. Comprising rare white and yellow jade, Chinese porcelain and snuff boxes, the collection also includes classical European furniture, with masterpieces from 18th century France, and haute couture. Patiently built up by a family whose name Christie's will withhold, the high quality of the pieces also traces the geographical journey of a family fleeing Jewish persecution under the Tsarist Empire. The rise of this family began in 1906 in Harbin, the northernmost city of China. It then moved to Shanghai, Hong Kong, and to the United States and Europe. The patriarch fell under the spell of white, yellow and pale celadon jades of imperial quality. Many of the jade pieces in this collection date from the time of the Qianlong emperor (1736-1795), considered one of the most flourishing periods of Chinese culture. I discovered the collection in the magnificent flat on the Côte d'Azur of the heir family," explains Camille de Foresta. Everything there was of Chinese inspiration, jades, porcelain, a gigantic Coromandel screen, 18th century furniture, all set in a sumptuous décor by Daniel Pasgrimaud, one of the greatest decorators of our time. Not forgetting the beautiful Asian-inspired haute couture collection by the greatest French couturiers. We can see mainly creations by Yves St-Laurent, to whom the client was very close, Chanel, Valentino, Christian Lacroix, Givenchy of course, to whom she was close, and Jean-Louis Cherrer. Without disclosing the name of the family, it had a prominent place in the jet set, without ever making the headlines.

The Chinese objects complement masterpieces of 18th century French decorative arts, as a pair of pedestals by André-Charles Boulle and an imperial secretary cabinet by David Roentgen (Christie's)

The auction will be conducted under the hammer of Camille de Foresta, and will most certainly be bought by the Chinese collectors who will travel to Paris for this physical sale. "The Chinese love auctions. They like to bid, to have the impression that they are making a deal, a discovery; they are very playful."

It's a safe bet that they'll be playing high stakes this December, if Christie's statistics, which describe sales often reaching three times the estimated price, are to be followed.

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