Published: July 10, 2018
Since becoming head of the department for Sotheby’s Chinese Works of Art in New York in 2015, Angela McAteer has taken a page from her Hong Kong colleagues and introduced micro sales curated thematically to shine a spotlight on particularly interesting or important works. Antiques and The Arts Weekly reached out to McAteer for her thoughts on the success of that strategy, the market for Chinese porcelains and her advice for beginning collectors.
There’s an adage in the auction world that you are “only as good as your last sale.” In your role as head of the department, are you trying to innovate? How?
I think our market has moved away from the traditional selling structure of holding one various-owner auction a season. In a competitive environment, and where there are so many global auctions and platforms for promoting and selling art, the truly great objects need to be presented in a different light.
As head of the department, I’ve been trying to innovate with carefully-selected thematic sales. We’ve had two focused on arts of the Ming dynasty – the first exploring how court taste came to influence ceramic design in from the beginning to end of the Ming; the second focused on the Imperial works of art of the early Ming period. Our next themed sale, which will be held in September, will be centered on objects used in ceremonial rites, divination and ancestral worship during two periods of time, separated by more than 3,000 years: the Bronze Age and the Qing dynasty. There are fascinating parallels and spectacular aesthetically powerful objects from both periods of time.
What is a benefit of themed sales over traditional sales?
Our traditional various-owners sales are usually comprised of approximately 300 lots, whereas the themed sales are quite smaller – approximately 15 lots – that allows us to give them a greater depth of exposure and for buyers to focus on those pieces more. We have found that the individualized attention tends to translate into a higher than usual number of bidders per lot, a higher sell-through rate and incredibly healthy individual results, suggesting that such sales focuses the market’s attention on a particular category or theme.
How do you determine the themes? Do all the items come in through New York?
Themes emerge as property comes in for sale. Sotheby’s global team for Chinese works of art helps source for the themed sales, regardless of whether the sale will take place in Hong Kong or New York.
How do you determine what makes the cut for a themed sale, and are there value minimums?
There is no set value minimum. The piece must “excite” us as specialists; it should embody several desirable elements, such as rarity, quality of execution, provenance, condition…but most importantly, it must contribute to the story we’re trying to tell with the sale.
When working with an unfamiliar piece of Chinese porcelain, what do you do or look at first?
I pick it up! There are so many clues hidden in the weight, the feel and the touch in Chinese porcelain, and those with experience can determine quite a lot from simply holding the piece. I’d also add that much of the enjoyment of these pieces comes from having it in the hand and being able to feel the body, potting and glaze.
Are there many “discoveries” in your field? Is there a Holy Grail of Chinese porcelains you have been chasing?
There are many stories of discoveries in this field, which is part of the wonder of working in Chinese Works of Art. Not too long ago, we sold a white “Ding” bowl from the Northern Song dynasty for $2.2 million, not long after the consignors had purchased it for $3 at a yard sale. The Holy Grail of Chinese porcelain is unquestionably an example of the fabled Ru ware – less than 100 examples are known to exist, of which the vast majority are in museum collections.
Is there a specific niche that Chinese porcelain collectors today are particularly seeking out?
In the last five or six years, we’ve seen renewed interest, as well as new interest from new buyers, for earlier works of art, particularly Song ceramics. Specifically, in New York, we’ve also seen a developing market for Ming ceramics. But at the moment, Qing still reigns supreme.
Is there a niche in the Chinese porcelain market that is more affordable to starting collectors?
I’d recommend burgeoning collectors look towards early wares, including Song ceramics, as that market is still developing, and very good works can still be acquired.
How important is provenance?
In a field increasingly concerned with authenticity, provenance can play an important role in ascertaining the age and value of a piece. Works of art safeguarded for generations in a family collection or sold at a highly respected auction house decades ago, are markers of confidence for many buyers.
What object have you handled that you are most proud to have found or handled?
Earlier this year, we offered a Xuande mark and period blue and white ewer from the Detring / von Hanneken collection. Following months of research, including delving into the family’s history, we determined that this rare and spectacular work of art was the only one of this form with a Xuande mark to have survived from the Fifteenth Century. The auction preview was the first time it appeared in public for nearly 600 years. On the day of the auction, it flew past its estimate of $600/800,000 and sold to a private Asian collection for $3,135,000.
What do you enjoy doing in your down time?
Escape! My definition of downtime is escaping the city, escaping my computer and phone, and essentially being as remote as possible. I love the meditative spirit of hiking in the wilderness, with just me and my very careful footsteps.
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