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Fresh on the heels of Art Asia Week (which is really 10 days) in NY, the questions started coming…how did the slowdown in China and other Asian countries affect the market for Asian Objects in New York? Were sales affected at the auctions? At the galleries?

Well, yes…and no.

Asian Art Week via their PR department, proudly announced $130 Million in total sales. Which sounds like a huge number…until you look at past years.

Reuters reported a substantial Asia Week slowdown – with aggregate sales the lowest since 2013. Auction sales were to blame for much of that. Neither Christie’s nor Sotheby’s had a strong season, with some auctions reporting a failure to sell as much as 40% in some sales. Christie’s, for example, reported sales of $37.2 million vs. sales of $161 million in 2015. That is down a whopping 70%. Sotheby’s racked up a combined total of $55.2m across seven sales during the week. Bonhams four Asian Art sales totaled $8.756m, and Doyle’s NYC knocked down nearly $1.5m worth. The remaining $29m of Asia Week NYC’s $130m total sales, being made up of reported dealer sales.

A fine very pale green jade archaistic vase and cover Qianlong period                       Fine pale green jade archaistic vase and cover Qianlong period Sold: U.S. $1,025,000 (with premium)                   Image Courtesy | Bonhams

One does of course have to bear in mind that Oriental auction sales in particular, are legendary for people reneging on deals, so the final cheques are yet to clear. It’ll be interesting to know what the eventual pay through amount totals, and if that will be disclosed on quarterly and annual reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC); also known as the full hammer.

The Financial Times recently reported that the Chinese economy has “a debt load bigger than the US or Germany, an economy overly dependent on credit-fuelled property development and capital flight accelerating”. The Japanese economy also shrunk, again. The economy contracted by 0.4pc between October and December compared with the previous quarter, and it shrank by 1.4pc on the same period a year earlier, according to the Japanese Cabinet office. This brings it in line for its 6th recession in 7 years.

But with all that doom and gloom, some sectors did well. Jonathan Stone, Christie’s International head of Asian Art went on record as saying that Chinese Classical paintings and calligraphy continued to sell well, with no shortage of buyers for quality items.

JJ Lally Jade CongChinese Neolithic Jade Cong, Liangzhu Culture, circa 3300 – 2250 B.C. sold by J.J. Lally to Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. for a price in the range of US $500,000. Image Courtesy | James Lally

Specialty items also did well. Noted Asian art dealer J.J. Lally, who assembled a major exhibition of ancient jade pieces, reported 80% sold to date…with 40% of those going to Chinese buyers. This of course makes one wonder who bought the other 60% of works sold….

The long arm of the law

An unsettling turn of events for the New York Asian Art market, was the string of raids and Indian items seized by US customs agents and local law enforcement. A seizure came just days before a planned March 15, 2016 auction of the items as part of the "Asia Week New York" festivities. Christie's had included the two artifacts in an auction entitled: "The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern.”

Screen Shot 2016 03 23 at 16.42.53Seized Buff Sandstone Panel Depicting Revanta and His Entourage Valued at $150k - Image Courtesy | ICE

Special agents from U.S. Customs Enforcement's in conjunction with the Manhattan District Attorney's Office seized the two stolen Indian statues believed to be from the 8th and 10th centuries A.D.

The artefacts were recovered from Christie's auction house in New York City and are the result of an international investigation led by HSI and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, with assistance from the government of India and Interpol.

According to the on-going investigation, the Sandstone of Rishbhanata appears to have been sold by Oliver Forge to London–based Brandon Lynch Ltd between 2006 – 2007. The Panel of Revanta, according to images provided by the source dealer, appeared to have contained an "orphan fragment," a piece perfectly broken off to be sold by the smugglers after the sale of the main part of the sculpture.

Federal agents also raided the Nancy Wiener Gallery on Thursday of last week in a move by the authorities which sent further shockwaves through the antiquities market, and Asia Week New York. A Kushan relief valued at $100,000, a limestone sculpture of Shiva and Parvati valued at $35,000, and a 10th Century bronze Buddha valued at $850,000 were all seized under a federal court warrant. Documents and business records were also seized.

Screen Shot 2016 03 23 at 17.04.12 Subhash Kapoor is under indictment for smuggling antiquities and stolen art - Photo: M. Moorthy

These actions by the authorities are all part of an ongoing operation titled, Operation Hidden Idol, which began with the arrest in 2011 of 61 year old Subhash Kapoor (owner of Art of the Past on Madison Ave) and the subsequent seizure of 2622 objects with a reported combined value of over $100m.

Screen Shot 2016 03 24 at 01.19.12M Knoedler & Co was an art dealership in New York City founded in 1846 and closed in 2011

The Nancy Weiner Gallery raid is the latest in a string of raids carried out by Brent Easter of Customs Enforcement, and Prosecutor at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Matthew Bogdanos. However, the US attorney and the Manhattan Attorney continue to muddy the waters while a known person of interest continues to walk the streets.

The Real Story

Dealers ask, why does Ann Freedman walk free and clear when it’s documented in court evidence that she sold well over $50m in brand new fake paintings? And, she was allegedly stupid enough to say she tested a large sum of the art with an as-of-yet-unknown conservator, in order to verify and to validate the age of the works in question.

An intelligent attorney well versed in the forensics of fine arts, instead of the slip and fall types who tend to populate the ranks these days, could take Freedman’s alleged statement, and those by her mystery restorer, and twist them into a pretzel on the stand under oath.

London Asia Art Week is scheduled for 3-12 November (another long week), dealers are wondering what the economy will bring and what effect the fall out from these raids might have on the legitimate trade in Asian Art and Antiquities.

Maura Haverly & Elliot Lee 

Screen Shot 2016 03 24 at 11.18.29

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