Henry Howard-Sneyd at the rostrum during the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale.
HONG KONG - Taking the rostrum in Hong Kong has never been for the faint hearted. The auctions of Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art have been the international focal point for collectors of such art since Julian Thompson brought the hammer down on the first sale in 1973 – now over 40 years ago. I have often used the image of Hokusai's daunting and powerful print The Great Wave to represent the feeling of standing at the rostrum looking out over the sea of people in the sale room.
Any auction is the end result of many months, and sometimes years, of hard work by many people in our organization, from the specialists and business winners who source the art, to the cataloguers and researchers who study it, and all the people who help present it to our clients in the optimum fashion possible. I am fully aware as I take to the rostrum that I take on the responsibility to build upon all that work and all the hope of the sellers and potential buyers. Traditionally an auctioneer would hope to sell around 60 lots an hour (one per minute), but in Asia, where the buyers are legion and the languages multiple, this can be dramatically curtailed. Following one sale in which many records fell, Giuseppe Eskenazi, perhaps the leading dealer in this field, congratulated me for 'breaking the record' . . . for the slowest auction ever! I had taken one hour and ten minutes to sell just ten lots.
But little could have prepared me for the sale of a spectacular gilt-bronze Buddha of the Yongle period of the great Ming Dynasty of China on October 8th. Much admired and much discussed before the auction, this piece had created waves of interest and, as Nicolas Chow describes in his blog, the resulting competition and drama proves worthy of many stories.
Before the auction, Nicolas Chow, who is unmatched in his ability to recognize the potential in a piece, took me through the catalogue telling me what he thought would happen, where he thought the interest would be, thus giving me a huge advantage in spotting the bidding. He told me that he had heard there was significant interest in this Buddha and that I should expect 'fireworks.'
As I opened the lot, the auction room felt tense, buzzing with expectation. My reserve (the undisclosed minimum selling price agreed with the seller) was HK$50m and often my first journey as auctioneer is to reach that critical point. But that day, with that atmosphere, I could tell I did not need to worry about that. More, I needed to worry about where, in that vast field of humanity and technology before me, my bids would come from. I knew about Mr. Zheng on the aisle. I knew that Cai Mingchao, who had previously bought the record gilt-bronze Buddha from the Speelman sale, was likely to be involved. I knew that Poly museum might be interested. I knew that there is interest from Taiwan. Far to my left I can see Giuseppe Eskenazi who had earlier in the day leapt to his feet to bid HK$100 million on the Chenghua 'Palace' Bowl. I could see Jim Lally who had bought the stunning Tang dynasty dry lacquer head from the collection of Goro Sakamoto. To the right I could also see James Hennessy of Littleton and Hennessy, sitting imperturbable as always and giving nothing away, even though for such a piece it was quite possible he would have interest.
Nicolas neatly recounts the story of what happened next. The representative of Poly and Cai Mingchao, both at the back and both moving about among the shifting crowd, bid strongly, but it was the gentleman in black on the aisle near to me who carried the day. We were all unaccustomed to the extraordinary prices (only once before has the figure of HK$200million been exceeded in this field) and my Chinese proved inadequate as had memorably happened once before. I brought the hammer down at HK$210 million, which I spoke in English. It is then that the mayhem started.