No cracks so far in Chinese export porcelain market


November 29, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen,Solis-Cohen Enterprises

Aggressive bidding by dealers and collectors from Germany, Portugal, England, Italy, South America and the United States at Sotheby's in New York recently proved that there are no cracks in the Chinese export porcelain market. An international array of serious competitors, seldom seen at auctions lately, battled for 200 lots of good quality antique porcelain with such enthusiasm that only two remained unsold when the dust settled. As a result, Letitia Roberts, Sotheby's expert in charge of the sale, is the talk of the trade in the recession-battered art and antiques market. Her colleagues and competitors don't have sour grapes, they just want her recipe for success.

Ms. Roberts' secret: The goods were fresh-to-the-market (many from estates and private collections) and estimated realistically to sell. Also important: Her years of experience pricing porcelain and her scholarly and descriptive catalog entries have earned the unpretentious expert a well-deserved international reputation for reliability.

No records

No record prices were paid at Sotheby's Oct. 23 sale, which grossed $856,240, and many buyers thought they got very good deals, although some thought the prices went through the roof for what they wanted. London dealer Clifford Henderson paid the day's top price: $60,500 for a 121-piece part dinner service (including platters and tureens), circa 1765-1775, all decorated with deep-pink-hued "famille rose" flowers in the rococo taste. It carried a $15,000 to $25,000 presale estimate. "There are not many services on the market, and I was delighted to get it," Mr. Henderson said, alluding to the fact that few owners are selling in this economic climate unless they have to.

Famille rose proved its universal appeal. Atlanta dealer Charles Perry paid a strong $18,700, against a $5,000 to $8,000 estimate, for a large, circa 1775 punch bowl painted with famille rose Mandarin figures. A circa 1745 oval wine cistern, decorated with famille rose flowers heightened with gilding and a band of shaded pink lotus blossoms, sold to a Portuguese collector bidding by phone for an impressive $22,100.

The variety of prices paid in this top-notch sale proved that the market for Chinese export porcelain is not just for the international jet set. In all, 34 lots -- one-sixth of those offered -- sold for under $1,000. For example, a small, circa 1810-1820 blue-ground wall vase 7 1/4 inches high, decorative and authentic but not a rare piece in pristine condition, sold for $220; a circa 1775-1785 Tobacco Leaf pattern plate fetched $440, its price kept low by repairs; and a late 19th-century Green Fitzhugh shell-shaped dish, made during an era of declined quality, brought $550.

Hong bowl

Sotheby's sale also showed the market's price volatility. A "hong" punch bowl 15 1/2 inches in diameter, made circa 1775, decorated with a bustling scene set along the Pearl River and showing European and Oriental figures and dogs in front of the hongs -- or international trading posts -- flying Swedish, British and Dutch flags on one side, French and Danish on the other, carrying a $25,000 to $35,000 presale estimate, sold for $24,200. It was considered a reasonable price for a rare bowl of fine quality with only a small hairline crack. The pleased buyer, Alan Chait of Ralph M. Chait Galleries in New York City, said after the sale that a few years ago similar bowls had sold for two and three times as much.

Armorial porcelain is often collected in the country to which it originally was exported. A rare circa 1750-1756 armorial oblong platter with the arms and monogram of Frederick II, king of Prussia, sold for $35,200 to a German dealer bidding by phone. A pair of plates from the same set sold in the salesroom for $31,900 to Khalil Rizk, of the Chinese Porcelain Co. in New York, who has an international clientele. These pieces have elaborate, richly painted enamel decoration.

"When you have a royal service of known provenance with a history, and the aesthetics are extraordinary,it is very desirable," Mr. Rizk said. "A single plate from this service sold recently in Monaco for $25,000, so nearly $32,000 for two is not too high."

Rich history

The stories relating to the service's manufacture added cachet. According to one tale, the ship transporting it from China ran aground before reaching Emden, the Prussian East India Co.'s home port; the partially damaged set couldn't be presented to the king, so it was stored and finally sold when the company disbanded in 1757. The other version asserts the town of Leer ordered the service for presentation to Frederick II at the conclusion of the Seven Years' War, but the monarch wouldn't accept it because he had no money left to make a reciprocal gesture.

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