In April this year, Chinese collector Liu Yiqian made international headlines when he paid $38 million for a diminuitive porcelain cup, the Meiyintang ‘Chicken Cup’ (1456-87), above, for his private museum in Shanghai. Less than 20 genuine ones exisit in the world today. “If you buy Chinese art this is the holy grail … it is the fantasy of all great collectors” remarked Nicolas Chow, Sotheby’s head of Chinese ceramics and works of art, speaking about one of the most copied and revered pieces in Chinese art.
The Art Gallery of NSW owns a splendid example of its own, dated c.1725-1750. It was a gift in 1992 from Mr Hepburn Myrtle, an eccentric Englishman who arrived on these shores in 1941 with the mission from his London firm to “do something with carborundum”. Once settled in Australia with his wife, he found himself visiting Hong Kong and Japan in search of choice items and assisting the AGNSW to build on their small collection of Chinese art. He became a trustee of the gallery for 14 years and over that time many of his pieces found their way to the gallery as gifts.
He was a dedicated and diligent collector of Chinese ceramics and jades, and like a number of collectors of small items, would carry around some distinguished object in his pocket to fondle. In sympathetic company he would take out a tiny jade carving from the Shang or Ming dynasties, and grinning very broadly, invite others to examine it.
Early Chinese jades are carved from nephrite, a variety of jade which, if uncalcified, has a waxy appearance and feels curiously alive in the hand, as this writer discovered when she was once given a tiny Shang Dynasty rabbit — a present for organising a series of lectures which Myrtle gave at the gallery in 1981 — and inspired by him, carried it around in a pocket to fend off boredom at long-winded staff meetings.
Myrtle represented the kind of collector whose finely-tuned connoisseurship enabled him to assemble a remarkable collection with modest funds. His interest in Chinese art had been sparked by an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1935 and like many collectors he kept the very first piece he bought. It was a blue and white piece of ceramic manufactured in 1700 in great quantities for the Dutch marketplace, called kraak. He paid four shillings for it in Tunbridge Wells. He would find the art world today virtually unrecognisable.
Recently The Wall Street Journal reported that a quarter of all art sales at auction were made by first-time buyers in the 2013-2014 financial year. This is the kind of intelligence that has prompted the two largest international auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s to trawl the globe seeking out more potential buyers and bring them into the fold.
In May this year 18 new collectors from China were extended an invitation by Christie’s to visit New York. They were treated to private tours through the Museum of Modern Art, given VIP tickets to a Manhattan art fair and were guests at a splendid dinner in the Rockefeller Centre ballroom of Christie’s. No surprise then, that they were strong bidders at the three-day post-war and contemporary art spring sales there, securing a $66.2 million Mark Rothko abstract, a $33.7 million Jeff Koons sculpture, an Alexander Calder ‘fish’ sculpture for $26 million and a Gerhard Richter abstract for $29.2 million. The three-day auction reaped an historic $975 million.
Clearly at the rarified stratospheric upper echelons of the art market, things have never been better. Figures gathered by the online entity artnet for 2012 suggested that five cities dominate the market place for the value of artworks sold;, these are New York, London, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
This simple data gathering exercise alone suggests the growing financial juggernaut of China, whose art collectors are not just pursuing post-war and contemporary American and European art but have demonstrated an insatiable appetite for Classical Chinese art. In one short decade China has become the second-largest art market in the world.
And to return briefly to the ‘Chicken Cup’ at the beginning of this piece. It had sold previously for $3.765 million in 1999. This represents a return of 864% over fifteen years. We might reflect then, on the astuteness, passion and generosity of the aforementioned Mr Myrtle, who has made it possible for locals to see works of the same calibre right here under our noses.