Chinese whispers

Last month marked the return of cashed-up Chinese buyers to the Australian auction scene, and auctioneers are jumping for joy.

Last month marked the return of cashed-up Chinese buyers to the Australian auction scene, and auctioneers are jumping for joy.

At Mossgreen's Spring Auction in Melbourne, where the first part of the sale was devoted to Chinese and Asian arts, most were picked up by Asian buyers with apparently unlimited budgets. That hasn't happened for a while and the response surprised even Paul Sumner, Mossgreen's managing director and Asian art specialist.

"They were mostly from mainland China, and they were there in force - and they weren't only buying Chinese art, they were after the European furniture as well, which was slightly unexpected," he said.

Typical of the results was the $170,080 (including buyer's premium) paid for Lot 188, a Tibetan gilt bronze figure of a crowned Buddha from the 14th-15th century.

The conservative pre-sale estimates of $20,000 to $30,000 surprised the vendor who bought it for "next to nothing" about 15 years ago. The eventual outcome came as a shock.

Lot 213 was another indication of the relentless bidding. This Nepalese figure of Buddha Sakyamuni, circa 11th century, was estimated at $2000 to $4000. It sold for $46,360 IBP.

Total sales for the Asian section added up to $1,434,044 IBP, or 180 per cent more than total low estimates of $798,840. Total sales for the entire auction, including the following Australian and European art and antiques section, came to $1,996,667 IBP.

Auctioneers dream of such figures. Paul Sumner says the Chinese were bidding by internet, by phone. Quite a few had flown in.

There was a crowd of some 200 in the new Mossgreen salerooms in the former Armadale Picture Theatre, renovated a few months ago as part of the merger between Mossgreen and the Charles Leski auction house. The sale result indicates it may have been well spent.

Paul Sumner was upbeat. "There's a kind of greater confidence in the market now," he says. "You can see the green shoots of optimism."

Sumner says the Chinese influence is directly linked to the rise and fall of their local economy. This was obvious in 2007 during a period of double-digit growth when a Chinese collector paid more than $800,000 for a gilt bronze at the Mitchell-Sterling sale held by Mossgreen. This is still regarded as the record price for a piece of Asian art sold in Australia. That landmark 2007 sale fetched more than $5 million in total.

Two and a half years ago Sotheby's Australia sold a Chinese Famille Rose Hundred Boys vase for $480,000 IBP at a Melbourne auction. At that time, one expert estimated that 95 per cent of bidders for Asian art were either based in Asia or Asian-Australians, including a percentage of speculators.

In boom times they tend to dominate the market, and even in slow periods Sumner says the Asian auction segment represents the greatest area of growth in the world.

"We've got an undercurrent of Australian buyers here," he says, "but they just don't have the gunpowder to challenge the mainland Chinese."

Except in one case. Lot 92 at the Mossgreen sale was a remarkable pair of carved Chinese ivory tusks, dating to the Qing Dynasty. These came from the private collection of Cheong Fat Zhe (1814 -1916) who established the Imperial Bank of China during the Manchu dynasty.

His grandson lives in Queensland and sold the tusks along with some other inherited artefacts. The tusks were estimated at $40,000 to $50,000 but were not chased hard by Chinese bidders. They sold for a relatively modest $67,140 IBP to an Australian collector.

To see a gallery of images from Mossgreen's Asian Art sale go to

theage.com.au/money.

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