I first met the Hsiao family on a visit to Melbourne in October 2019, on the recommendation of a client from my Sotheby’s Australia days in the early 2000s.
The collection had belonged to Hsiao Chung Lung (1947-2008), who was born in Shanghai and moved to Taiwan with his family as a young child around 1949. He moved to New York in the 1970s and after graduating in immigration law, he worked for a Manhattan based legal firm.
On first arriving in New York, Hsiao began visiting museums, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at the Chinese collections, which gave him the sense of a cultural tie to ‘home’. As his financial circumstances improved, he became a keen collector and could often be found in antique shops in New York and on his travels to Hong Kong, Paris and Taipei. He was particularly drawn to Chinese gold jewellery, for its intricate craftsmanship, which he collected for over thirty years.
He returned to Taiwan in the 1980s, but after a holiday in Australia, where he at once felt at home in the more relaxed atmosphere, fresh air and the unspoilt environment, he moved his family to Melbourne in 2000.
On meeting the family and seeing the collection, it was clear that there was some high quality pieces for the international market. I put together a working document for the family and it was our intention to look at selling at one of the auction houses in New York, London or Paris.
However, by March 2020, Covid-19 struck and plans were put on ice until a clearer picture was to emerge on the state of the market. In late January this year, I approached Yvett Klein at Bonhams Sydney, as I strongly believed that Covid had become a real leveller in the market due to the extent of the migration of the auction world to the internet. Did it seem necessary in all cases to send pieces overseas when the majority of clients unable to travel would view the pieces and bid for them online?
As with all sales, the human interest angle and the back story to the collection could potentially add interest and thus value. With the family living in Melbourne, it became clear that the greatest leverage of this could be gained by selling on the local market.
After careful selection, a group of 73 lots was chosen for sale and the Bonhams team created an attractive single-owner catalogue. The viewing in Melbourne and Sydney prior to the auction aroused considerable interest, despite some delays due to continued local lockdowns.
With over 100 potential bidders on the day, the auction began with much anticipation at 2pm on Sunday 08 August and took just over two hours to sell 73 lots. The main highlight of the sale was lot 33, the Ming dynasty gold repoussé figure of Buddha, dated to the 22nd year of the Wanli reign (1594). It had been purchased from J. J. Lally & Co., New York on 17 July 2000 and sold for AU$73,800 (£ 39,234), three and a half times the upper estimate (Estimate $15,000-20,000). The second highest selling lot of the day was lot 38, the Qing dynasty gold ‘lotus’ stem cup, which sold for AU$67,650 (£35,964) (Estimate $3,000-5,000).
The overall result of the sale was a total of AU$579,133 (£306,000) against a low estimate of AU$133,600, with all but 6 lots selling (91% by lot). The family were thus very pleased with the result and it was a fitting tribute to the collecting taste of Mr Hsiao Chung Lung.