Where is the center of the Asian art market? Not in China, where outside the stunning Shanghai Museum there's little ancient art remaining except what's still undiscovered, buried underground. Not in Hong Kong, though auctions are increasingly being held there. And not in New York, though the city's annual International Asian Art Fair is a mainstay of the art collecting calendar. "It's not generally recognized," says London gallery owner Michael Goedhuis, "but anyone interested in buying Asian art--from Islamic to East Asian--has to come to London." While there are only a handful of major dealers in New York, some 50 of London's Asian art dealers, together with the city's museums and auction houses, will be showing off their wares in "Asian Art in London," a wide-ranging program of events and exhibitions.
The abundance and variety of London's Asian art--testament, of course, to Britain's history as a colonial and acquisitive power--is readily demonstrated by the museum exhibitions held in conjunction with the fair. On Nov. 17, the Royal Academy of Arts will open on the first exhibition ever of 100 pieces of Imperial Chinese ceramics, dating from the 12th to 18th centuries, from the private collection of Au Bak Ling, who has never before published or exhibited them. The British Museum offers "Minakar: Spun Gold and Woven Enamel," a show of contemporary textiles from India. The Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies has on show "Islamic Art and Patronage: Treasures from Kuwait."
While the most familiar Asian art is perhaps Chinese porcelain or Japanese calligraphy, London also has galleries specializing in Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan, Korean and Islamic art, encompassing 3,000 years of these ancient cultures. The more unusual items to be seen during "Asian Art in London" include Southeast Asian gold jewelry from the Hindu and Buddhist civilizations of the 7th to 15th centuries, at Danart; a circa 12th century Tibetan sculpture of the Bodhisattva Maitreya, at A & J Speelman; an 18th century inlaid lacquer cabinet from Korea, at Gerard Hawthorn; 15th century Islamicized Iranian copies of the archetypal Chinese blue and white porcelain, at Axia East Christian & Islamic Art. The major auction houses--Sotheby's, Christie's, Phillips and Bonhams--are planning sales in November, primarily of Chinese and Japanese art.
For those who feel not quite ready to make a purchase, there are educational events: a three-day seminar at Sotheby's Institute discusses the range and market for Chinese porcelain, and a lecture at Christie's addresses the problem of authenticating Asian art.
The events will also celebrate the current state of the arts in Asia. Though modern Asian art has yet to win widespread, unanimous acclaim, interest in it is growing. Goedhuis, who will be staging a show of three contemporary Chinese artists in November, notes that a Chinese painter, Gu Gan, has followed the likes of Picasso and Warhol in having his work chosen to grace a Mouton Rothschild wine label.
The organizers of the "Asian Art in London" week insist that they are not trying to replace the New York Asian Art Fair, which takes place in March--that in fact both events are needed for the common goal of bringing greater prominence to this growing market. And while the buyers of Asian art have traditionally been Americans, who are the biggest consumers of all art, Asians are now giving them a run for their money: other than the Japanese demand for Impressionist paintings, which has dropped along with the country's economy, the Asian art market has so far been unaffected by the economic crisis. "I believe in the next 20 years we will see an absolutely volcanic increase in the buying of Chinese art by the Chinese themselves," says Goedhuis. He adds, "My prediction is the most expensive art in the world won't be Western in 20 years; it will be Chinese art." That would mark a revolutionary change in the art world. But one thing would remain the same: the place to buy it will still be London.