Saturday, May 7, 2011

UK auction house demands deposit before accepting bids on "premium" Asian lots

The Salisbury-based firm of Woolley and Wallis has become the latest auction house to demand special pre-registration conditions, including a deposit, before accepting bids for "Premium Lots" in its sale of Asian Art scheduled for 18th May.

Thus far there have only been two or three instances in which Chinese buyers have failed to pay for high-priced works of art knocked down to them at European art auctions. But already that represents an uncomfortable trend, forcing auctioneers to install precautionary measures to avoid the embarrassment suffered by Bainbridges of Ruislip and Christie's in Paris.

The inside front page of the catalogue to Woolley and Wallis's May sale of Asian Art states (accentuated in red text):

"Clients who wish to bid on lots 362, 451, 468, 469 and 471 must submit pre-registration applications, with all necessary financial references, guarantees and deposit, to Woolley and Wallis Salisbury Salerooms Ltd. at least three working days in advance of the sale. Woolley and Wallis's decision whether to accept any pre-registration applications shall be final."

The first lot they refer to is a fine 18th/19th century Chinese Imperial celadon jade ruyi sceptre carved with a poem by the Qianlong Emperor and estimated at £60,000-80,000. That's hardly the sort of figure that would normally justify special pre-registration payment conditions. However, as Confucius might have said, these are not normal times.

Ruyi sceptres are quite common at Asian art sales, but the addition of the imperial inscription could set this one apart from other fine examples. One thinks of the Song Dynasty Ru ware bowl in the Percival David Collection at the British Museum, which also bears an inscription by the Qianlong Emperor, lending it the sort of documentary significance that Percival David coveted and for which today's collectors would be prepared to pay a premium.

The lot carrying the highest estimate at the Salisbury sale is described as "an exceptionally fine and rare Chinese Imperial white jade teapot and cover, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period," forecast at £200,000-300,000. Provenanced to the Scottish-born cotton merchant Hinton Daniell Stewart (1835-1926) and thence by descent to the present vendors, this was originally acquired in the late 1880s, after being shown at the International exhibitions of 1871 and 1886.

From the same source comes a fine Qing Dynasty Qianlong Period white jade conjoined vase and cover, estimated at £100,000-200,000. This too requires prospective bidders to lodge financial references and deposits prior to the sale.

The Chinese Imperial bronze rat and rabbit sold to a Chinese bidder at Christie's sale of the Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Berg é sale in Paris in 2009 was never paid for and was subsequently returned to Bergé. Nor, as far as can be established, has the bill yet been settled for the Qing vase sold to a Chinese bidder at Bainbridges in Ruislip in November 2010. Both these lots were reputed to have been looted from China and thus were vulnerable to the sort of protest now besetting not just auction houses but museums too.