Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to all our readers!

We are only three months in at ChineseArt.co.uk but thank you all for your enthusiastic reception to the site, the UK’s first Chinese art news and blog site.

We all have hopes and dreams for 2014. Artistically, this is ours. If we could just find one of these during the coming year, we might be more than happy . . .


An Imperial Chinese bed dated to 1876.                                                                   Image courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachussets

If you see another one do let us know!            Best wishes for 2014.

The challenge of filling China’s new museums


1956 Telegraph & Argus cutting ed

Paul Harris (extreme left), author of this post, pictured in 1956 at the Cartwright Memorial Hall Museum, Bradford, before a working model of a Victorian invention. Cutting/picture courtesy The Telegraph & Argus

It is hardly a challenge faced by museum curators in the West, where basement storerooms and dusty attics are crammed with a myriad of currently unfashionable exhibits: stuffed birds and preserved fish, oil paintings of morose Highland cattle, World War II gas masks, working models of minor 19th century inventions, and the like. Decades, if not hundreds of years, of collecting, and of dedicated collectors turned benefactors, have stuffed museums to bursting point. In continental Europe, the tides of war have tended to clear out the stockrooms on occasion, but in the UK, particularly, the stuff has built up and, occasionally, selections are made for some new thematic presentation. In the face of pressures of space and cash, acquisitions run at a relatively modest level.

In sharp contrast is the situation of new museums in China. And there are an awful lot of them sprouting up. In 1949, when China came under control of the Communist Party, there were just 25 museums and many were burned down or otherwise destroyed during the period of the Cultural Revolution between1966 and 1976. But during the period of growth that accompanied Deng Xiaoping and his policies in the 1980s, there came a new emphasis on cultural development which has gathered pace in recent years. In 2009, a State Council meeting upgraded culture to the status of a strategic industry. ‘Culture is the spirit and the soul of the nation,’ it was pronounced. Culture was described as a ‘pillar industry’ which, in Chinese terminology, means an industry which will contribute at least 5% of GDP.

According to the most recent five year plan for 2011-15, China was to have 3,500 museums by 2015: that target was achieved two years early. By the end of 2012, there were 3,886 museums, with new ones being added at the rate of one a day. Overwhelmingly, they chronicle the proud history and achievements of Chinese civilisation (although not exclusively, The Economist [December 14 2013] reports that there are two new museums of plastination, or polymer preserved bodies, in Dalian and Chongqing). We all know, and may have visited, some of the more outstanding new establishments like The Shanghai Museum (fabulous) and the display of the terracotta warriors, near to Xian. But the ultimate objective is for every city with more than a quarter of a million people (that’s small for China) to have its own world class museum.


The magnificent Shanghai Museum, 2012   Photo Paul Harris

Such has been the speed with which these new museums have been created, that there are currently substantial difficulties in actually filling them: either with exhibits or people. Of course, there’s not much point in going to a museum which has little, or nothing, on offer. The insane depredations of the Red Guard meant that private collections of porcelain and other art were looted, smashed and lost for ever; many museums were simply burnt down. They provided a spectacular opportunity to get rid of an awful lot of decadent material in one go.

There were other dramatic losses. Previous to all this, in 1948-49, as they lost the civil war, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces shipped an estimated 230,000 of the best pieces of Chinese art off to Taiwan. They remain there to this day and are rotated through the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The National Palace hosts indubitably the best collection of Chinese art in the world and the National Museum in Beijing still has a lot of catching up to do.

We (Chinese Art in Scotland) recently bid on a rather attractive piece of purple-splashed jun ware, estimated in a provincial English auction room at just a few hundred pounds. What set it apart from other pieces of jun ware, which is oft copied today, was the box it came in and which bore the Kuomintang label and stamps and a label inscribed by the Nanjing Museum Protection Committee, which had received the residual Imperial collection after the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. We took the bidding to £8,000 and then allowed it to go back to mainland China where, hopefully, it might end up in a museum.

The requirement for objects to exhibit in all these new museums is one of the factors which have fuelled the boom in the Chinese art market. New museums are not just looking for the best and most expensive. They must also have examples to illustrate more modest, or currently less sought after, genres. Auctioneers in the UK provinces who mount Asian sales will regale you with stories of the minibuses full of Chinese buyers who descend on any decent auction. At the sale, far from forming a ring, they will often energetically bid against each other. These men are agents who may be buying for museums, private buyers or, simply, for themselves as enthusiasts or dealers. If they are agents, they are on commission and the higher the prices go, the more cheerful the day becomes.

However, the rush to fill China’s museums can sometimes develop into indecent and ill-considered haste. In June 2013, the Jibaozhai Museum, located in Jizou, a city in the northern Chinese province of Hebei, was rather suddenly closed down. The museum had been finished in 2010 at a construction cost of 60 million yuan (£6.4m. sterling, around US$10m.) and its 12 large exhibition halls were packed with some 40,000 objects. But a Chinese writer, Ma Boyong, paid a visit in 2013 and posted online doubts about some of the exhibits. He noted a piece, allegedly 4,000 years old dating to the time of the Yellow Emperor, which bore writing in simplified Chinese characters, which only came into use in the 20th century.

There was also a ‘Tang Dynasty’ five colour porcelain vase. This was rather extraordinary as the technique was only developed many hundreds of years later, during the Ming Dynasty. But, perhaps most remarkable of all, was a ‘Qing vase’ embellished with distinctly modern cartoon characters . . .

The museum’s chief consultant, Wei Yingjun, made the startling, if self deprecating, assertion that he was ‘quite positive’ that at least 80 of the Museum’s 40,000 objects had been confirmed as authentic. Mr Shao Baoming, the deputy curator, sought to correct this statement, maintaining that ‘at least half of the exhibits’ were authentic. The owner, Mr Wang Zonquan, apparently also local Communist Party leader, seemed rather more philosophical. ‘Even the gods cannot tell whether the exhibits are fake or not.’

hubei museum exhibit

Pictured at the Jibaozhai Museum in 2013, a most unusual Qing vase

Outside observers reckon that the Museum had been filled with cheap copies available on the internet at between 200 and 2,000 yuan (around £20-200). Not even sourced as far away as those auctions in the West . . .


Calculated choice or fevered speculation? The outlook for 2014

viewing auction itemsThe end of the year is traditionally a time both to review the past year and look forward to the next. The two go hand in hand. Without an understanding of the past you have no basis upon which to predict the future.

The last year has provided many pointers. There have been prices in the low millions for the best objects. New areas have crept up over the horizon and provide an opportunity for the rather less well heeled: embroidery, clothing, Imperial badges, and so on. It seems to us that the market for Chinese art is approaching an identifiable state where it will divide: there will be a much clearer division between the serious connoisseurs, who buy as a result of a process of considered and calculated choice, and the ‘amateurs’ and speculators, who operate rather lower down the market as a rule, but not altogether exclusively. At this end of the market, they will continually seek out new areas for acquisition and investment and will maintain price levels.

The serious connoisseurs, mainly Chinese resident in the PRC, will continue to snap up the very best items, ideally backed up by impeccable provenance, at a level where price is regarded as a relatively insignificant factor. They will operate at a level well into six figures (around £500,000+) into the millions. There will be no real limit on their financial reach so figures in excess of £10m.+ can be confidently expected. However, the individuals, and the corporate networks behind them, are less than a few dozen. They will compete vigorously at the top of the market in pursuit of undoubted quality and provenance. This will continue to drive up the prices for the very best examples of Chinese historic art.

Lower down the market, are the more modest collectors and . . .  the speculators. Mr Chen Kalun, deputy curator at the wonderful Shanghai Museum, (in my view, the best museum in the world) recently opined that, ‘Less than 1% of the collectors across the country [China] can be counted as real collectors.’ Allowing for the fact that he is maybe being a trifle snobbish in the manner of museum curators, let’s say that this 1% constitute the calculated connoisseurs, who buy from deep-seated knowledge and appreciation accumulated over the years. The rest are those we might term enthusiasts seeking to move into the market and the speculators. They may boast relatively small budgets but, equally they are very, very numerous in a population well in excess of 1.5 billion people.

We hear a lot in the Chinese market about the wealthy and the fact that they will only buy the best, the perfect, the item with provenance. They are, in fact, few in number. Most Chinese people – especially the increasingly wealthy middle class (‘nouveau riche’ if you prefer the sobriquet) – are still learning about their heritage and their art, after decades of it being derided by political forces. When this market matures, over the next few years, the demand for anything Chinese boasting some age and beauty, will explode in a way unimaginable to us today.

These are the people already behind ‘blind’ internet purchases, eagerly scouring the net for their heritage. For the moment, they are relatively few in number. When this thing really gets going – and it will build over the next few years – dealers will wish they had more stock, sellers will regret what they have parted with,and auction houses will be desperate to seek it out from the most distant and dusty of attics. The message is clear. ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet . . .’.

Paul Harris is owner and chief editor at ChineseArt.co.uk as well as owner of Chinese Art in Scotland and The Coldingham Gallery. He collects himself, lived and worked in China, and consults for private collectors and corporate buyers abroad.

McTears point to success with December Asian sale

Glasgow auction house McTears say they are delighted with the success of their December Asian sale and point to the outstanding performance of three Chinese lots, all of which sold for well above their estimates.

McTears clothing Museum-bound?

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the price for a collection of clothing which included a dramatic blue dragon robe, a hat and a necklace. Against strong competition from the Far East, the lot was knocked down at £3,200 hammer to a buyer in Abu Dhabi. [We have previously noted the strong performance of Chinese textiles in recent times; see our report of last month’s Bonhams Edinburgh sale]. Abu Dhabi is in the process of building up collections for several new museums (in competition with Qatar) and participation in the market can be expected during 2014.

McTears plaque Ceramic plaque

A simple but elegant bronze censer was sold to China for £3,000 and a ceramic plaque, late 19th or early 20th century, went to a UK buyer for £2,800.

McTears bronze censer  Bronze censer

The next Asian sale at McTears will be held on March 4 2014.

Bonhams 400th Japanese art anniversary sale

imagesCAU099H1 shogun

London auctioneers Bonhams have announced that they will hold a major sale in December 2014 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first auction of Japanese art ever held in Britain.

The Clove, a ship of the English East India Company, left England in 1611 under the command of Captain John Saris. It arrived in Japan in June 1613 and, after a successful encounter with the country’s rulers, left that December with a return cargo which included two suits of armour and ten pairs of screens, gifts from the shogun to King James I, as well as a group of lacquer wares which were sold at auction on December 20 1614. This auction is believed to have been the first ever auction of Japanese works of art in London.

Bonhams’ anniversary sale will feature artifacts made during Japan’s four centuries of trade with Europe. The 1614 sale was a ‘candle auction’ with bids accepted so long as an inch of lighted candle remained alight. Bonhams will not be continuing that tradition: it is understood that the planned sale will be held in the modern conventional manner and will doubtless feature banks of computers and telephones. The more sensitive might be prey to a feeling of nostalgia . . .

Ashmolean gifted mega collection of Chinese modern art

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum has been bequeathed the largest private collection of modern and contemporary Chinese art held in the West.

More than 400 modern and contemporary pieces of Chinese art have been left to the Museum by the art historian and connoisseur Professor Michael Sullivan, who died in September at the age of 96. Press reports have estimated the value of the collection at ‘more than £15m.’. In our view, £150m. would be nearer the mark: the collection contains works by Qi Baishi (12864-1957), Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Fu Baoshi (1904-64) and contemporary painter Xu Bing (born 1955). A work by Qi Baishi recently fetched more than $40m.

Professor Sullivan was not only the first person in the West to collect Chinese modern art, but he was also the author of the ground breaking book Chinese Art in the 20th Century (1955). A regular visitor to China, he struck up personal relationships with many Chinese artists and his collection includes a significant number of works gifted to him. There is already a gallery at the Ashmolean named after him and his wife, The Khoan and Michael Sullivan Gallery, and in March 2014 there will be a commemorative exhibition Michael Sullivan: a Life of Art and Friendship.

The works in the newly acquired collection will be shown in rotation by the Museum.

Michael_Sullivan, Huang Xiang 2011

Professor Michael Sullivan pictured 2011 on a visit to China with artist Huang Xian

National Museum of Scotland Ming exhibition

图像 023                             Gold cicada, jade leaf

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh will exclusively showcase an exhibition of Ming antiquities in summer 2014. The exhibition will include ‘iconic’ blue and white porcelain, silk textiles, cloisonné, jade and gold items. The exhibition titled Ming: The Golden Empire will not be shown anywhere else in the UK and represents something of a coup for the NMS. The exhibition, mounted in association with the Nanjing Museum and Nomad Exhibitions, comes against a background of warm China-Scottish relations in advance of September’s referendum on Scottish independence. Cooperation is developing at many levels between the two countries but this is the first major initiative in the field of art.

NMS exhbn blue white vase Blue & white vase

Speaking at a reception in  Beijing, First Minister Alex Salmond said that the event was the result of a cultural memorandum of understanding signed with the Chinese Ministry of Culture. ‘I am delighted that this partnership will see this exciting and special Ming exhibition brought to Edinburgh next summer,’ said the First Minister. ‘This is a fantastic example of a cultural exchange that is helping us enhance the mutual understanding between our countries, creating an atmosphere of respect, trust and celebration.’

Dr Gordon Rintoul of the NMS said ,’We are thrilled to be bringing a remarkable collection of treasures to the UK  for the first time. We are delighted to collaborate with the Nanjing Museum, one of the most prestigious in China, in hosting the only UK showing of this exhibition.”

The exhibition opens on June 27 2014.

Photographs copyright Nanjing Museum/Nomad Exhibitions

NMS Portrait of He Bin                     Ancestral portrait: He Bin

Canton enamel boxes quadruple top estimate at Lyon & Turnbull

Two attractive Canton enamel floriform boxes with covers  more than quadrupled the top estimate at Lyon & Turnbull’s Fine Asian Works of Art sale in Edinburgh on Wednesday December 11. Estimated at £8,000-£12,000 the hammer fell at £52,000, exclusive of 25% buyer’s premium.

lot 309 £63650

Floriform Canton enamel boxes £52,000

The battle for the two boxes, one of which bore a Quianlong mark and was said to be of the period (the other being said to be later), was largely between the telephone and the internet. Bidding started with a commission bid at £13,000 but the internet countered with an immediate bid of £18,000. The nature of the bidding seemed to suggest that the 12cm/ diameter boxes were believed to be an original pair from the Quianlong period.

This was not the highest bid of the sale. A 19th century full tip carved rhinoceros horn estimated at £30,000-£50,000 was sold for £54,000, exclusive of 25% premium, after a saleroom battle between two Chinese bidders in the room.

283 incl premium £66050

Carved rhino horn tip £54,000

A lime green ground famille rose meiping vase, jiaqing seal mark and of the period, was also sold to a Chinese buyer in the room at £34,000 (estimate £30-50,000). Many watercolour scrolls of 20th century vintage substantially exceeded their estimates whilst prices on less inspiring lots tended to be around the lower estimates.

meiping vase

Jiaqing meiping vase £34,000

The next Lyon & Turnbull Asian sale is on February 13 2014.

Auctions – who’s really doing the buying?

gavel 1

I started buying at auction on a regular basis in the early 1970s, and have never stopped. I used to buy in Edinburgh at Dowell’s Auction Room, a suitably mediaeval-sounding establishment operating over a warren of floors and corridors. Things were really rather different in those days.

Virtually everybody bought in the room. A few bids were left, and I can remember the sense of novelty when the Bakelite telephone was used for bids for the first time. But, for the main part, the buyers were in the crowded room where your strategic placement was all important. Some of us made sure we were there half an hour ahead to get the best position where we could view the opposition bidding. And, of course, the buyer’s premium was totally unheard of (as, for that matter, was the mobile telephone!). There was real drama as rivals bid against each other in the room. And things rocketed along at up to 150 lots an hour. All in all, it was great fun.

I was in a provincial room a couple of months ago for a large Asian sale of some 800 lots. It’s one of those nice old salerooms with a gallery, a proper dais and traditional roof light. But the sale was not of the old school. There can’t have been more than a dozen buyers in the room. Instead, there were half a dozen computer screens, and a rank of telephones. I guess only around a half of the lots sold to those of us in the room. We waited patiently as the person on the third phone bid against a Chinese bidder on the second internet link. And so it went on, for more than eight hours. Yaaawn.

Of course, I may sound like some sort of moaning dinosaur but it is no fun bidding against faceless anonymities on the internet. I sometimes idly wonder whether they are retiring billionaire buyers, or tech-savvy Chinese schoolboy pranksters on a wind-up. Either way, I don’t like it.

Virtually every auctioneer will tell you privately of lots unpaid for after these anonymous bidding battles. Some, like John Nicholsons who recently dropped more than £200,000 on an unpaid item sold at a distance, are coming clean on the downside of this sort of operation. Today, if you want to bid on some expensive lots, some auctioneers will ask for a five figure deposit (essentially an interest free loan). In the old days I paid by uncleared cheque and carted my purchases away. Of course, there’s now a lot of pain about for auctioneers, and also for those of us who patronise them in person and who have a commitment to in depth examination and assessment of the lots we wish to bid on.

So far as I can see, these long distance purchasers thousands of miles away have never seen or handled any of the objects they are buying. They may badger the auctioneers for detailed digital images the day before before the sale, but I can’t possibly see how they can execute due diligence on the purchase of often extremely expensive items. ‘Sold to China, on the internet,’ drones the auctioneer. Like me, you have probably seen pieces which were patently copies achieving the sort of prices you might expect for an original.

I can hardly imagine the disappointment back in Beijing the following week when the courier delivers a ‘Quianlong’ vase made 100 metres down the road a couple of months previously. The only reasonable conclusion one can reach is that there is more money than sense about in the market. Equally, however, there is no doubt that the Chinese market is so vast, and so replete with cash, that this trend will not be going away.

I think of that every time I look in the stockroom . . .

Huanghuali furniture boom revs up

Huanghuali furniture has long been highly prized but there is now considerable evidence accumulating which indicates the market is revving up dramatically. During the Asian Art in London week, Christies sold a magnificent pair of huanghuali cabinets for £380,000 ($600,000), but even this price is totally eclipsed by the US$1,563,750 sale of two very large cabinets in New York on September 20 this year. At the same Christies sale in NYC a pair of 16th or 17th century horseshoe backed chairs achieved $75,000, with many more five-figure sales. That having been said, the highest price ever achieved was over $6m. for a Ming dynasty four poster bed at a Guardian auction in Beijing in 2010].

a_magnificent_and_very_rare_pair_of_massive_huanghuali_compound_cabine_d5719882h $1.5m in NY

What is changing now in the market is the fact that not just the older pieces of huanghuali furniture are fetching high prices: 19th and 20th century pieces, once abjured by serious collectors, are on the move also. Naturally, the later pieces are usually more affordable, but if they are well made and boast beautiful grain and a rich amber tone they will be sought after.

In next week’s Fine Asian Works of Art sale (December 11) Edinburgh auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull feature some 15 pieces of huanghuali furniture ranging from the attractive curio stand (our Object of Desire this week) to chairs and tables. But we particularly like Lot 25, essentially a miniature version of previous cabinets sold for big money. It is marked out by its attractive grain and deserves to do considerably better than its £4,000-6,000 estimate.

huanghuali cabinet lot 25 4-6,000                        Lot 25 Lyon & Turnbull December 11

Virtually all of the huanghuali being sold in the UK is destined to return to China, where it will be exposed for sale at even higher prices, if not absorbed instantly into private collections.

Note: the Chinese term huanghuali means ‘yellow flowering pear’ wood and is a member of the rosewood family classified as Dalbergia odorifea. The term huanghuali is relatively recent in use. Up until the early 20th century it was known as huali or hualu. The huang prefix (yellowish-brown) was added to describe old huali wood. It can be confused with hongmu visually, but its sweet fragrance marks it apart. The colour can range from reddish-brown to golden-yellow but amongst the most sought after finishes are those featuring ghost-like facial whorls. Supply of the wood is now extremely limited and it sells at around $1.6m. a ton.

Ming huanghuali 4 poster Y42m. $6m. bed