Asian Arts at Auction: The State of the Marketplace With Tremont Auctions

Rebekah Kaufman
Published on
Images of Tremont Auctions’ Asian Arts Expert Jim Callahan and Auction Manager Cameron Ayotte, respectively. Photos courtesy of the auction house and collage by Auction Daily’s Pranit Dubey.
Images of Tremont Auctions’ Asian Arts Expert Jim Callahan and Auction Manager Cameron Ayotte, respectively. Photos courtesy of the auction house and collage by Auction Daily’s Pranit Dubey.

The broad universe of Asian arts – rarities collected for their distinctive and pleasing aesthetics, craftsmanship, connection to royalty or dynasty, and beauty – includes antique or well-executed decorative arts, glass, cloisonné, ceramics, censors, metalwork, carvings, and paintings, among others. Auction Daily spoke with Cameron Ayotte, Auction Manager, and Jim Callahan, Asian Arts Expert, from Tremont Auctions of Sudbury, Massachusetts, to learn more about this broad category and its outlook for 2021 and beyond. Tremont Auctions has offered extraordinary Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other pan-Asian selections since 2016 through its biannual Asian Arts sales. 

Auction Daily: Tell us a little about Tremont Auctions’ role and expertise in the Asian arts  category.

Cameron Ayotte: Tremont Auctions is extremely proud of our emerging leadership in the Asian arts space. We held our first Asian arts sale in 2016. A top lot in that event was an exceptional Yabu Meizan Satsuma covered urn, which realized over $22,000 – almost twice its high estimate. We’ve never looked back from that point – and for good reason. At our most recent dedicated Asian art sale, a 15th-century Sino-Tibetan gilt bronze Buddha seated on a double lotus throne traded hands at nearly $60,000 – almost seven times its high estimate!

Gilt bronze Buddha. Photo courtesy of Tremont Auctions.
Gilt bronze Buddha. Photo courtesy of Tremont Auctions.

Having Jim Callahan as the head of our Asian Arts department provides an enormous benefit to Tremont Auctions. He brings decades of experience to our firm and has handled literally thousands of high-profile examples across the broad Asian arts spectrum. As a recognized Antiques Roadshow appraiser, collectors and estate handlers turn to him and seek his knowledge when appraising and offering their items at auction. Our firm is recognized in the industry for its consistency in a somewhat crowded and sometimes spurious marketspace. Given our past sales successes in the Asian arts categories, our onboard and specialized talent, and growing international reputation and clientele, we are very excited to see what the future will bring for us. 

Auction Daily: Today, what is particularly “hot” with collectors when it comes to Asian arts – and why?  

Jim Callahan: As in all markets, there are pieces of fine art, which in Asian art are pieces with an aristocratic background. There are also items of everyday life with high-quality craftsman production. However, these items are of secondary interest to collectors. Rarity and fine workmanship, as always, define what’s “hot.”

Auction Daily: In the broadest sense, who is buying Asian fine arts today? Are they also collecting other fine arts or do these collectors primarily focus on items of Asian origin?

Jim Callahan: Because of the high value of some aspects of Asian art, everyone is curious about the subject and wants to participate. It is a worldwide phenomenon. Asian collectors are generally focused on Asian art, but high-end collectors are interested in all areas of value for investment purposes.

15th-century cast iron Buddha head. Photo courtesy of Tremont Auctions.
15th-century cast iron Buddha head. Photo courtesy of Tremont Auctions.

Auction Daily: Jim, what is the most exciting piece of fine Asian art you’ve ever handled as a specialist, and why? 

Jim Callahan: Personally, the most interesting piece I’ve handled recently was a cast iron head which measured roughly 30″ high. It was probably from the 15th century and from China or Korea. Casting iron works of this size was the highest tech at the period and could be made only in China or Korea, as it was technically impossible in the rest of the world. In addition, it was also beautiful. Tremont Auctions sold this absolute rarity in the fall of 2019 for over $60,000; it went to a major collector who purchased it for its aesthetic qualities as well as rarity.  

Auction Daily:  How, if at all, has the global COVID-19 pandemic impacted the Asian arts  marketplace?

Jim Callahan: The market actually expanded during the pandemic as cabin fever took hold and people needed to do something. The internet was a perfect vehicle for exploration and has resulted in strong sales. The number of bidders and watchers for our online auctions has skyrocketed in the last year or so.

Auction Daily: And finally, your signature Fine Asian Arts and Antiques event is on the horizon. Tell us about this sale and give us a hint of a top lot or two.

Cameron Ayotte: Our next Fine Asian Arts and Antiques auction will be coming up in the late spring and will include quality porcelain pieces from the 18th century and Republic period, textiles and robes, scroll paintings, jade and wood carvings, and furniture. We are particularly excited about an important, single-owner collection of fine Satsuma porcelain that will be offered as part of this event. We are still accepting additions for the sale and are always happy to help people with appraisal or consignment of their family treasures.

For more information on Tremont Auctions, please visit their website

Want to learn more about the Asian arts category? Auction Daily explored the most recent Asia Week New York.