Asian Art: No Longer a Crouching Tiger: New Year Brings with It a New Interest in All That Is Asian-At Least When It Comes to Painting, Prints, Ceramics, Artifacts, Furniture and Decorative Arts

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"We haven't seen anything like this before," notes Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society and Museum in New York City, about the surging interest in Asian art. "It only started to take off at the auctions in Hong Kong [in 2004]. Then it suddenly exploded."

Asian paintings, prints, ceramics, artifacts, furniture, and decorative arts are attracting world attention, with interest in Asian works--antiques and contemporary art alike--soaring beyond all expectations.

The most dramatic results are seen at at auction. In early November, at Asian Art Week in London, Carolyn Putney, curator of Asian art for the Toledo Museum of Art, noticed Asian art selling for double, triple, and even quadruple that of auction house estimates.

Such exuberance in Asian art has been great for her fall show of Japanese woodblock prints, "Strong Women, Beautiful Men." "We've had these Japanese prints since the 1930s and no one was interested in them. After World War II, no one wanted to hear about anything Japanese," says Putney. "There is more of an interest now by the general public. It's something new that they haven't seen before, and Asian art has such a wonderful timelessness. People respond to it."

The Toledo Museum isn't alone in reintroducing its Asian treasures. This past year the Indianapolis Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, in St. Petersburg; and the Nelson-Atkins Gallery, in Kansas City, joined a growing number of museums to Asian exhibits.

It's About Attitude

What exactly is Asian art? It's a very broad term that describes all art from a continent that includes a third of the world's land, two-thirds the world's population, and a population so diverse that 2,200 different languages are spoken. One might legitimately wonder if art representing such diverse people could find common ground.

It does, says Putney. "You can look at it and tell it's Asian. It retains that Asian sensibility."

This Asian design or attitude may be rooted in traditions. According to Chiu, "Many artists ... advance local artistic traditions: for example, patra painting in India, calligraphy in China, or lacquer painting in Vietnam."

"Tradition has always played a big role in Asian cultures as well as art;' says Mance Thompson of the Gabo Company, in Tokyo. "Asian Art is definitely defined by country and also by medium, such as pottery or ceramics, ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), Buddhist statues, ink painting, kiri-e (paper-cut art), etc."

Art is divided by country, too. Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Vietnamese are among the bigger, better-known categories. But they overlap, borrow from one another, and share traditions. Thus, some people find it easier to refer to the art collectively as Asian art.

"Anything that is Chinese is selling tremendously well," says Catherine Riedel, director of marketing for Skinner auction house in Boston. In October, an Asian decorative art sale brought nearly double experts' estimates. For instance, three Hokusai woodblock prints, projected to sell between $3,000-$6,000 each, brought five times that amount: $29,375 each. (Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese painter and wood engraver.)

A couple of years ago, nice Japanese or Chinese woodblock prints could be easily acquired for a couple of hundred dollars, says Putney. "Now the prices have really skyrocketed. You're lucky to buy something for a couple of thousand dollars," she says. "Still, it's a good buy."

New Buyers See Investment Potential

One of many factors spurring Asian art sales are new art buyers in mainland China, according to Chiu.

Several auction houses in Beijing and Shanghai held highly successfully contemporary art auctions in November. While they drew buyers from around the world, most significant was the turnout of Chinese nationals. Chiu says that they're building collections. "Prior to this" she says, "collectors of work by mainland China [artists] were outside of China. …