Michael Bass has been with Christie’s for 15 years, working in the Chinese Works of Art Department in New York. His title is Senior Vice President, International Director. Prior to joining Christie’s, he worked in the Department of Asian Art at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art, Harvard University. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the History of Art from the University of Florida and a Master’s Degree in Asian Art from the University of Kansas. He was interviewed by Kimaya de Silva '17 and Alexandra Cheng '18 on Dec. 3, 2015.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your involvement in the Chinese art market?
I've been with Christie's since the year 2000 and before that I worked at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Harvard University. I started in the commercial art world with Christie's and am now an international director and specialist in Chinese works of art. For the most part, my department handles three-dimensional works in a variety of materials.
What is your opinion on the Chinese art market today?
There's currently a lot of interest in Chinese art. The west has always had a fascination with China. In recent years, China has developed an increased interest in its own history and art in conjunction with its growing economy. It's been a strong market for a long time and there was a boom period between 2011 and 2013 during which, there was an insatiable demand for Chinese works of art and we saw many record prices. This steep incline in strength has now admittedly steadied a little bit. It has now reached a healthy stability and has maintained its strength, albeit a little bit more selective than it was before. I think collectors are more careful about what they're going for right now, but still some very strong prices are being achieved.
So who are the main buyers in China and would you say that Chinese buyers would prefer western or Chinese art?
It's still a very broad group of people that buy in our category--we have Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and other collectors outside of greater China. Lately, China has been accounting for approximately 30 percent of the buyers but, in terms of bidding power, they can represent around 60 to 70 percent of the value. That 30 percent is a strong group that has a large buying power within our field. A few years ago we saw an increased interest in luxury goods. These buyers were interested in not only Chinese art but also in handbags, jewelry, watches and wine. They have also developed an interest in western art as well. Liu Yiqian’s recent purchase of Modigliani Nu Couché piece is representative of this trend. I don't know that the Chinese are typically such big players in impressionist, modern, and pre or post-war pieces but this set a world auction record. Obviously there's a developing interest there as well.
Do your buyers come from a range of backgrounds?
Absolutely. As on would expect we have a lot of clients from greater China. At the same time a number of the top buyers are from America; some of them are Chinese-Americans and some of them are non- Chinese who just developed a fascination with Chinese art, so it's pretty broad.
What kinds of art pieces do you see in your collections?
In our department, we handle works of art that can date as early as the Neolithic period, from the 4th millennium B.C. all the way to the 20th century. We handle many types of jade carvings from the Neolithic and Bronze Age; Shang, Zhou, Eastern Zhou, and Han dynasty, and we also work with archaic bronzes. We also work with ceramics from the Neolithic period to the Republic period, as well as furniture, snuff bottles, glass pieces, semi-precious stone carvings, and textiles such as wall hangings and robes and court dress. Our department works with many different types of works of basically every material.
How did you obtain these pieces? Where do they come from and how do you source them?
There are many different ways that a particular work can come to us. Sometimes – in the United States especially – people inherit or develop collections that they want to sell. Institutions may also sometimes deaccession Chinese art works if they are seen as being redundant or if they do not fall within the focus of the institution. Our works come from every walk of life. Sometimes I am amazed at how a piece of art ends up where it is.
What would you say to someone interested in the Chinese art market, and could you speak to the greater implications of Chinese art’s popularization?
I believe in buying what you love. A lot of people look at art and see an investment but I don't like the idea of buying only for investment. While it’s good to be savvy and invest in something that you think there's a future in or that will remain strong, I don’t recommend acquiring a work just because you think it’s going to go up in value. Tastes change. From the 1970s and through to the early 2000s, one of the strongest areas of interest was early pottery. Han and Tang pottery were very much beloved by the Western collectors because it showed so many aspects of life. Then there was a shift in the early- to mid-2000s where there was an increased interest in more traditional Chinese-taste which were not only beautiful but also illustrated collecting categories such as archaic bronzes, jade carvings, and porcelain. One should always keep in mind that tastes change—one thing could be particularly hot now and not in the next moment, but then it may pick up again.
Being here 15 years, I've seen a lot of changes in the market. Between 2005 and 2006 there was a brush pot craze; everybody wanted porcelain brush pots. But then that craze subsided after the season. Right now, one of the strongest categories is furniture. We've had record prices over the last several seasons — we sold a table a few seasons ago for 9 million and a set of four chairs in March of this year for around 9 million too. It’s an incredibly strong area but the furniture has to be made of either zitan or huanghuali. Collectors have always recognized and appreciated a beautiful piece of huanghuali furniture; but the prices have really skyrocketed since I started in 2000.
Overall, some of the early pottery that commanded really huge prices in the 1980s to the early 2000s has really kind of gone down. The Chinese traditionally weren't very interested in early pottery because many pieces were made for funerary purposes. However, we are now seeing an increased interest from the Chinese collectors in glazed pottery from the Tang dynasty particularly horses and vessel forms. They see it as the precursor for glazed porcelain. Tang potters really had a good control of glaze and created beautiful vessel shapes, and now it is an area that has started to gain strength. I think we’re also seeing a little bit of a trickle down effect in interests. For example, if we see an increased interest I glazed pottery, we may eventually see an increased interest in painted pottery.
How are these trends initiated?
You never really know and that’s one of the interesting things about this market. In order to get a strong price, you have to have at least two bidders looking to collect. Sometimes it could just be a small group of people with a strong interest in a specific category that is controlling the market.
You have the broader collecting categories such as porcelain, ceramic, jade carvings, and furniture that appeal to a lot of people and so prices would not be determined solely by a small number of buyers. There are some people that focus on specific niches within the market, such as snuff bottles, textiles, early jades, and then you have others that are interested in pieces with a broader appeal, such as ceramics, jade carvings, and furniture.
The market for these broader collecting categories tends to remain fairly steady while there can be more dramatic fluctuations within the smaller niche areas. You sometimes see niche suddenly gain strength one season then soften the next. The different trends that come and go over the years are very interesting.
That must be an interesting line of work for you.
Yes. It's actually really difficult because as much as we would like to try to direct the market with our tastes, I represent the company and have to think in terms of its best interests. You have to try to gauge what those interests are based on successes and failures from previous seasons. Every sale is unique.
How do you choose the cities where you hold your auctions? For example, is it by demand—there are a lot of buyers in China so it makes sense to have an auction in Hong Kong?
In America, traditionally we’ve had strength in early works of art like archaic bronzes, archaic jades, early ceramics and snuff bottles. Markets for Chinese-taste jewelry such as jadeite jewelry that are not as strongly developed in the United States would more appropriately be sold in Hong Kong. This is just a general way of looking at how the art is divided up across sales in different regions of the world. Christie's now does have sales in China but it is mostly wine, watches, and jewelry, not antiques.
For more important works of art, we tend to send those to the locations we know will have the most collectors. In America, we have some of the top monochrome ceramic buyers. We would likely recommend selling Song, Ming, and Qing monochromes that appeal to the modern aesthetic of western collectors here in the U.S. We try to keep in mind the best location for each type of work of art while also keeping in mind its estimated price. For example, it wouldn't make sense to send a $10,000 piece to Hong Kong because of shipping and insurance costs. It would have to be something over $100,000 to warrant being shipped to another location otherwise it would probably be in the client’s best interest to sell it in the place that it is currently located.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I would like to see more people gain an interest in Chinese art, or any art, for that matter. The best way to learn about history is with an object in front of you that represents it – it really makes it all the more meaningful. I learn something new from every object that we handle; you look at a piece of porcelain and realize it is not independent of itself; it was commissioned and made at a particular kiln under specific instructions. It’s not just a work of art, it is a piece of history. I think a lot of Americans think that art belongs in museums. The biggest benefactors to museums are private individuals, and so you need a new collecting group out there that is interested in art and that are willing to fund and donated pieces to the museums. That's how museums keep up with the times.
By selling artworks and getting it out there, we are helping to foster a new generation of collectors that will hopefully keep the art market exciting and strong. I am passionate about people understanding the historic value of art. What’s wonderful is when you have access to all these different aspects of culture. Having artworks that represent different cultures gives us an opportunity to appreciate their beauty and learn from them.
Another thing to realize is there are a lot of different places where one can enter the market. You don’t have to be a millionaire to have art. For a few hundred dollars you can get a gorgeous piece of porcelain or even a 3000-year-old Neolithic jade carving. With each purchase you increase your knowledge and before you know it, you’d have a nice little collection of your own. I’m always trying to get young people interested because of the historical richness of Chinese art and the reasonable price point one can enter the market. Most people aren’t going to be able to purchase a Picasso but you can get a really amazing ancient Chinese work of art for a couple thousand dollars that can be every bit as meaningful. For example, you could buy a 1300-year-old Tang dynasty horse for a few thousand dollars – something that your kids grow up with and enjoy inspiring the next generation of collectors.