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The Chinese are Buying and Americans Receive the Benefit


New York City auction houses were humming during Asia Week in mid-March. The buzz, however, was not due to English being spoken as in the past. It was Mandarin and Cantonese that was producing the background din.

At the recent March 2015 auctions during Asian Week in New York City, I was feeling very lonely. My usual gang was gone. The attendees were virtually all Chinese.

Grey Limestone Figure of a Standing Bodhisattva, China, Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Lot 758, Sale 11421. Christie’s, Rockefeller Center, NYC. March 20, 2015 Provenance C.T. Loo and Co. New York, 1941. The Collection of Robert H. Ellsworth, New York before 1984.

New York City auction houses were humming during Asia Week in mid-March. The buzz, however, was not due to English being spoken as in the past. It was Mandarin and Cantonese that was producing the background din. The sale of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth engendered a mini temporary exodus from China and Taiwan to Manhattan.

The main floor of Christie’s Rockefeller Center, NYC where the preview of the March 2015 Ellsworth sale began.

Ellsworth was arguably the most prominent dealer of all things Chinese and Asian in the middle decades of the 20th century. He died in August 2014 at age 85. The remaining items from his 22-room home on Fifth Avenue in NYC were auctioned by Christie’s. The Chinese and Asian artifacts from other prominent collectors such as Julia and John Curtis were also being offered simultaneously. Sotheby’s, Bonham’s and Doyle’s, also auction houses in NYC, were on the bandwagon with their own Asian sales. This provided an opportunity for mainland Chinese and Taiwanese to come to the city and bring back what had been taken from their homeland more than 60 years earlier.

Doyle’s Auction in NYC about 11:30 AM 3 13 15. As far as the eye could see, all attendees at the auction preview were Chinese. I saw only one Caucasian face in roughly every 50 or 100.

For example, the gray limestone figure in the first illustration was purchased originally from C.T. Loo in 1941 in NYC. Mr. Loo obtained this and objects like it in war-torn China and sold them to eager Americans and others who coveted objects from the East. Think of the Rockefellers and their collection at the Asia Society.

For sure, no one will be buying what the Asia Society Collection now owns. But, the possessions of deceased Ellsworth, a dealer, are fair play.

The reverse of a one of four Chinese Blue and White ‘Kraak Porselein’ dishes, circa 1643 from the Collection of Julia and John Curtis. Lot 3521, Sale 3721. Christie’s Rockefeller Center, NYC. March 16, 2015. Provenance: Captain Michael Hatcher sale at Christie’s Amsterdam March 14, 1984.

While at the Christie’s preview I ran into Becky MacGuire, a specialist in Asian art at that auction house. She said, “They’re buying back their heritage.” Of course, she is right. Everything at the sale was made in China or another Asian country.

Compare this to other areas where the Chinese are buying in America. Critics shake their finger as the Chinese buy Manhattan real estate. They say, “It makes the city too expensive for New Yorkers.” At the same time, there are concerns that the Chinese are the third-largest holder of publicly held US debt. Detractors ask, “What would happen to our own economy if the Chinese were suddenly to bail?”

But, I would guess no one is fussed up about the Chinese taking back their own heritage. Here, we Americans win because the pieces that are purchased now were exported to the United States long ago and accrued in value since leaving China. American sellers are making a profit as are the auction houses. At the same time, the Chinese are happy buyers as they bring back to their own country what originally was theirs.

For More:

It's Not Easy Diversifying a Portfolio with Antiques

The Chinese are Buying (They’re Just Not Paying!)

All photos by the author.

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