Haute Pro Tips: Buying Asian Art In NYC

A Youth in Persian Costume from Francesco Galloway, London
A Youth in Persian Costume, India, Golconda, c. 1630-40, from Francesco Galloway, London

Is now the moment to buy Asian Art?

If you’re a value investor, it may well be.

Recent economic turmoil in China has allowed both new and veteran collectors to bid or consider buys without the frenzied competition that comes with an overheated market. “For the beginning collector, it’s one of the best times to acquire artworks at very attractive prices,” says Lark Mason, chairman of the recently concluded Asia Week New York. “Although the Asian art market has been grabbing headlines in recent years for one record after another, many parts of that market are still undervalued.” Masons points out that media focus typically concerns the high end “leaving many less expensive works under-publicized.”

While many gallerists and collectors were expecting less robust sales during this year’s Asia Week New York (which finished with $130 million in transactions off a high of $360 million in 2015), they remain bullish on the category’s future, noting that rare and prime objects sold briskly, and that Asian art, despite the region’s current financial woes, will remain in demand because of its intrinsic value, offering collectors the chance to own artifacts from highly evolved ancient cultures.

To that point Mason said that participating galleries “had steady traffic throughout the week, and the four major auction houses including Bonhams, Christie’s, Doyle, and Sotheby’s saw robust sales.” Sotheby’s sales reached $55 million, roughly doubling the figure from September 2015.

Many gallerists also reported an active pre-sales market, always a good category indicator. James Lally of J.J. Lally & Co., a Chinese specialist reported that 80% of his exhibition was scooped up before the end of Asia Week. “The subject this year was very esoteric—ancient Chinese jade—but the response was very strong,” he said. Joan B. Mirviss, who oversees her eponymous gallery, had a similar run-up. “Ninety-five percent of our exhibited works sold before Asia Week’s end,” she reports. Chinese specialist Eric Zetterquist of Zetterquist Galleries in New York said he felt the pessimism surrounding the impact of the Chinese economy to be unwarranted, at least from his experience. “We saw many Chinese collectors and dealers who were active buyers.”

Ono Hakuko (1915-1996) Kinrande floral-patterned covered porcelain water jar Japan, ca. 1985 Joan B. Mirviss, Ltd
Ono Hakuko (1915-1996) Kinrande floral-patterned covered porcelain water jar, Joan B. Mirviss, Ltd

During Asia Week New York buyers tastes spanned the gamut, but also confirmed interest in top performing categories like Chinese art, calligraphy, ceramics, porcelain, and fine Buddhist items.

As for the best values today, Mason says collectors should look at:.

Japanese art: “In particular, works from the Meiji period in bronze, ceramic or other media—as well Japanese woodblock prints and Namban wood and lacquer objects.” Mason notes that even in a market frequently touted as booming, there are still Japanese screens to be had at bargain prices.

Fashionable Snow, Moon and Flowers: Snow woodblock print ca. 1768-69 by Suzuki Harunobu, Scholten Japanese Art, New York 11 by 8 in. (27.8 by 20.3 cm)
Fashionable Snow, Moon and Flowers: Snow woodblock print
ca. 1768-69 by
Suzuki Harunobu, Scholten Japanese Art, New York

Early works of art from Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam: This includes “sublime representations of the international style of Buddhist art, often at a fraction of the cost of similar works from China,” says Mason.

East meets West artifacts: Gandharan sculpture is often underpriced, as are the art and furniture created in trade centers like India, Indonesia and other locations where the Eastern aesthetic met the needs of Western trade.

Unexpected opportunities with Chinese art: According to Mason, early ceramics are one of the most undervalued areas, as are many examples of regional and provincial works in wood and other organic materials. Chinese Export art and porcelain, a trade that dominated the international economy for hundreds of years, also offer opportunities.