AUCTIONS

Who was the most dotty Modern British artist? And how come he was actually French? Find out at Sotheby's on Wednesday
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More than 500 enamel London Underground station name signs go on sale at the Natural History Museum, Tuesday (9am). Romantic places such as Belsize Park, East Finchley and Hounslow Central with the familiar red roundel could fetch anything between pounds 200 and pounds 500 each, judging by prices at the last two sales by Brooks. (0171-228 8000).

Patchwork quilts are deep and thick and even at Christie's South Kensington's sale of costume and textiles, Tuesday (2pm). Most of the 70 on offer - nearly double the usual number - date from the days when women at home had more time than money: the 19th century up to the 1930s. Today's age of rush and tear has developed a soft spot for cuddly quilts, and prices are rising: expect to pay anything between pounds 100 and pounds 600.

Patchworkers were shameless borrowers from other cultures: women in Durham would stitch up Ohio Rose or Texas Flower patterns and call them their own. Many patterns have whimsical names: Ice Cream Cone, Rosebud, Grandmother's Flower Garden, Wedding Ring - although Drunkard's Path probably harks back to the domestic reality of the time.

It is Chinese week in the London salerooms and Sotheby's has scooped superlatives by offering the world's finest collection of Chinese jade thumb rings: 80 of them, picked up over 30 years by a discerning British collector who spent 50 years in Hong Kong. They are expected to fetch pounds 300,000.

Thumb rings? Chinese nobles wore them for archery as long ago as the 12th century BC. Some have a flattened side to press against the bowstring. And all are carved; uncarved ones are common.

They were not used to print out an image in clay or wax as were Egyptian cylinder seals: admirers had to turn the ring to discern the delicately incised hunting scene or abstract pattern.

The market for Chinese artworks in London, especially ceramics, is booming: there is 20-30 per cent more to buy than last year. Sotheby's has 750 lots: three times as many as last year. The reason is pre-1997 jitters in Hong Kong, where the economy, notably the property market, shows signs of faltering. Whereas a couple of years ago London auctioneers would bung Chinese ceramics over to Hong Kong with scarcely a thought, today their instinct is to sell them here.

Chinese buyers are perfectly capable of bidding pounds 100,000-pounds 150,000 for Imperial Ming and Qing ceramics over the telephone. Anything worth over pounds 1m, well, they would still rather see and touch it at home.

The sell-it-here spirit is akin to the London contemporary art auctions' wizard wheeze, reported here last week, of trying to persuade Americans to buy American works in London instead of New York. London auctioneers are becoming disconcertingly entrepreneurial.

There is still time to see the sumptuous museum-quality exhibition of Chinese jewellery and ornament at the London dealer Eskenzai, "Adornment for Eternity" - a private collection of more than 100 gold and jade head- dresses, pendants at 10 Clifford Street, London W1 until 15 December (0171-499 3136).

Chinese ceramics and artworks sales: Sotheby's Tuesday (10am) followed by a private collection (3pm) and thumb rings, jade carvings and snuff bottles Wednesday (10.30am). Christie's: Monday (10.30am).

Help! Bonhams is expecting pounds 200,000 for hitherto lost interview tapes of John and Yoko at its rare record sale at the Wembley Rock and Pop Fair today (2.30pm).

For a full list of countrywide auctions and fairs, see pages 14 and 15

John Windsor

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