Inside Bonhams
Orient express

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 69

A rare pale green jade figure of a male dancer Eastern Han Dynasty

Inside Bonhams
Orient express

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 69

A Rare Fancy Coloured Diamond and Diamond Ring, by Scott West

Inside Bonhams
Orient express

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 69

Chu Teh-Chun (born 1920)

Inside Bonhams
Orient express

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 69

Edward Wilkinson, Bonhams new Executive Director in Asia, talks to Lucinda Bredin

There was standing room only and the phones were alive at Bonhams' sale of exceptional jade pieces in Hong Kong in April. Buyers were clamoring for rare and precious items from a collection never seen before at auction, including an outstanding figure of a male dancer which sold for a record price of HK$31,480,000 (£2,851,450), contributing to a spectacular total of HK$178,276,250 (£16,141,386).

The fabulous result for 'the stone of spirit' augurs well for Edward Wilkinson, Bonhams' newly appointed Executive Director in Asia. Currently leading the South Asian, Indian and Himalayan Art department and based in the United States, Wilkinson will take up his new post in June at Bonhams' Hong Kong headquarters.

We meet in London on the occasion of Bonhams London Chinese sale. Wilkinson is in the saleroom and it is not long before he has been pulled as if by magnets across the room towards a remarkable – and remarkably large – sculpture of a Buddhist deity, which will be offered in Hong Kong in December. "I'm usually thrilled to see a statue that is 20-30 centimeters tall, let alone 104 centimeters like this one," he explains. It is certainly an impressive sight, but why does it make his pulse race? "It is the quality of the casting", he says examining it closely. "Details such as these – the copper fingernails, the lion and tiger masks, the jewelry inlay work in his crown and his necklace inset with opal and turquoise – are rarely found on such large works." Thanks to its quality and rarity, it is estimated to fetch HK$22-28m (£2-2.5m). The sculpture is from a monastry in 13th-century central Tibet, and highly sought after because so many of the artifacts were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Wilkinson has come a long way since his first-ever sale as an auctioneer: it was a Royal Doulton cup and saucer. "It fetched $1.50 in very strong competition starting at 50 cents," he says, rolling his eyes. Raised in a small Australian town, Goulburn, Wilkinson's family didn't have much to do with art, but they did know all about auctions – of sheep. After an education at the elite King's School in Sydney, Edward eschewed agriculture and took the chance to learn the trade from the bottom up at Lawson's, an auction house run by his cousin.

But it was his mother who led Wilkinson to his passion for Asian art. For six months a year, when Edward, his sister and two brothers were away at boarding school, his mother lived on a houseboat in Kashmir; in the holidays she nurtured her son's interest in the subcontinent's culture and history.

It also gave Wilkinson himself the taste for travel and he set off to discover the world – eventually arriving at Bonhams in London in 1989, where the considerable knowledge of textiles he had acquired on his travels led to a job. "I was thrust in at the deep end with lots of enthusiasm and a thirst for knowledge," he recalls. Neither has dimmed, and after working for leading auction houses and art galleries around the world, he is an expert not just on Asia, but on different types of global market. It is this perspective and expertise that he will bring to Hong Kong.

As he says, "The market for Asian and Himalayan art has been going upwards since the 1980s, but we've seen a real jump in the last five years, with collectors from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong recognizing it has been undervalued."

According to Wilkinson, buyers in the region are now much better informed and selective, and prepared to pay high prices for good quality. And while traditional Chinese collectors are still an important presence, they no longer have a monopoly. "We see a wonderful mix of people and that's what excites me," Wilkinson enthuses. "We have buyers from the US and Europe and a big part of what I want to do is to bring the West to Hong Kong – both the material and the collectors."

Now that quality works are in such short supply, Wilkinson has to remind his buyers that opportunites often come only once. When works are sold into mainland China, they are likely to remain there.

Established and up-and-coming connoisseurs from Europe and America now recognize that they have to compete for the top lots. Quality is all important. Today, a client who has spent a million dollars on a Himalayan work may well acquire a Thai sculpture if the craftsmanship is of the first-order. "We can't predict stock markets," Wilkinson observes, "but people can recognize an important work that may not have been seen for 50 years."

Hong Kong is celebrated as one of the greatest retail centers on earth and Wilkinson intends to use his considerable knowledge of that sector to advantage, including offering works for private sale. In October, an exceptional collection of 108 gilt bronzes will be offered as a single-lot, sealed bid. Just two clients have been invited to study the superb collection quietly in the morning, before a public viewing in the afternoon. It's a bold approach that demands huge confidence – something possessed in abundance by Bonhams' new man in Hong Kong.

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

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