What’s going on in the Chinese art market?

opinion hl

Something is wrong in the Chinese art market. A few commentators predict complete meltdown. Others point to continued high prices. And most people are scratching their heads and wondering about the unpredictability manifest in the auction market.

Lack of information about the strength or otherwise of private and gallery sales means that most observers are driven to looking at auction records. These are, at best, unreliable when attempting to gauge what is actually going on. The number of lots unsold at some auctions recently was disappointing: more than 50% at Lyon & Turnbull’s recent June sale; 41% unsold at Bonhams, Kinghtsbridge; 40% without a home at Sotheby’s New Bond Street ‘Important Chinese Art’. At the same time, the actual totals in money terms of many of the recent sales exceed those achieved year on year. What is notable is that the very best lots are attracting more money than ever before.

There are a few factors which have sought to undermine the lower and middle market this year. The most significant one is to be found back in China itself. All the Chinese dealers we know in places like Beijing and Shanghai, where wealth is most evident, are complaining about the partial, if not total, disappearance of their important customers. This represents a tangible manifestation of the effect of the anti-corruption and tax evasion drive energetically launched by President XI Jinping. It used to be that Chinese officials in their millions gratefully received gifts in return for little favours: speeding up a planning application, dumping some parking tickets or, even, allowing indiscriminate commercial development in their own little area of local political influence.

All those Ming bowls and vases, glistening jades and elegant jewels are no longer being bought for gifts. This has effected large areas of the middle and lower market. Here in the UK, the auctioneers themselves are running scared. As the Antiques Trade Gazette put it this week in its current issue, ‘the Chinese market is awash with fakes’. We think that is overstating the case somewhat but there can be little doubt that there is a large quantity of very well produced fakes being offered to auction houses and, in turn, being offered to their customers. The problem very much is that the auctioneers can no longer tell between the originals and the fakes: the fakes are that good. There is, however, an upside to this. Some very fine pieces, under-catalogued or catalogued with caveats like ‘probably later’ or ‘a later copy’, are slipping through at auction at a fraction of their real price. Of course, they are bought without that vital ingredient: provenance.

Provenance implies that you can prove a piece came from a great house in the country, can be shown to have been looted from the Summer Palace or was sold to your Uncle Bill by a starving local as he came back from the Japanese War. You need a bloody good story these days to place a piece with most auction houses. In the absence of being able to dream up a wealthy (preferably titled) gin-sodden granny who spent her life in a hammock somewhere out East, you are stuffed.

Eventually, this provenance thing will go away. For a start, there are very, very few things left with real provenance. The great houses of England were emptied long ago by death duties and the lack of heirs after two World Wars. Most of the great collections built up in the early part of the 20th century have been dispersed. Provenance is being demanded because there is insecurity operating. At the moment there is something of a lacuna in expertise. Just as Britain and the US lacked analysts and linguists in the wake of 9/11, there aren’t that many experts on Chinese art left alive in the UK.

So we will have to go back to assessing an object using the old values: on the basis of its craftsmanship, aesthetic appeal and, the old failsafe, gut reaction. Meantime, the market might be in recession right at the moment but, remember, there are around one and a half billion Chinese out there and the middle class is growing at a simply formidable rate. Most of them are going to want a little chunk of their own past. If it looks the part, it will find a home.

What’s really going on in China

opinion hl

We have just returned from three weeks in China, visiting Shanghai, Jingdezhen and Beijing, and are currently travelling in Japan. It is more than ten years since we lived in Shanghai and it is quite remarkable to reflect on how things have changed dramatically in the last decade or so.

It was staggering to spend, at the Paulaner Brauhaus in Xintiandi (downtown Shanghai), a swingeing £9.80 (US$15) on a pint of draught beer. Ten years ago, that would have paid for a week’s modest drinking. It was equally staggering, in Japan this week, to pay just over £2 (US$3.00) on a pint of draught beer. It all used to be quite the other way round. Japan was the most expensive country in East Asia and up and coming China amongst the cheapest.

Now it has all changed. Mr Shinzo Abe has introduced measures to boost the Japanese economy using central bank easing (Abenomics as it is known). The yen has declined in value dramatically and, all of a sudden, Japan is a bargain basement country. What’s more, it is full of Chinese tourists (at least Tokyo is) and they seem to be frantically buying up rice cookers. Apparently, they are a fraction of the price they are across the water in Shanghai.

Are there any messages here for those of us in the world of art and antiques?We think there are. China is in the process of transit from a low cost economy where most everything was cheap to a high cost economy. There will, of course, always be a large section of the population in China which is cripplingly poor but there is an ever growing middle class which has large savings (often in a hole in the wall rather than a bank) and spare cash at the end of the month.

The pressure of all this cash is bound to push up prices, quite apart from the aspirational factor whereby the newly wealthy seek to improve themselves and their neighbours with newly acquired high taste and culture. Hundreds of millions of Chinese will be looking for a piece of porcelain here, and an ancient scroll there.

We think we know what that implies. The giddy rise in prices in China is set to continue and that can’t be bad for business . . .

Should the victors return all their loot?

opinion hl

There was a thought provoking piece in the London Sunday Times a couple of Sundays ago. Columnist Eleanor Mills observed (March 8 2015) that there had been a lot of fuss about whether or not collections looted by former colonialists should be returned to their countries of origin.

“Well,” she comments, “watching the reports in which ISIS is shown desecrating and destroying Assyrian treasures, I am jolly glad that a load of them are sitting safe and beautiful in London. There’s never been a better defence of museums as custodians of the world’s heritage – those beautiful Assyrian lion horses are far safer in Bloomsbury than in the caliphate.”

Indeed. But does the same apply to some rather well known Chinese works of art extant in countries like the UK and France? We recently commented on the BBC radio documentary which deals with the destruction of the old Summer Palace, Yuanminguan. The destruction of this unique site and the appropriation of many great treasures which were exported abroad still raises hackles in China. Many Chinese feel that the matter is still unresolved and that, indeed, there are treasures which are overdue for return to China.

That having been said, many priceless antiques including important furniture and porcelain were destroyed during the 1970s and 80s as the Red Guard rampaged through the country destroying every vestige of bourgeois decadence. As you cast your eyes over the breath-taking Percival David Collection of porcelain in the British Museum, it is difficult not to find oneself in agreement.


Oil painting by Friedrich Keyl of Looty, taken from Yuanminguan.                       Courtesy The Royal Collection

There were, of course, a few rather more ephemeral items which were appropriated like the Pekinese dog from Yuanminguan, insouciantly named Looty, which was presented to HM Queen Victoria. The painting made of the dog is still in the Royal Collection. The GraniteStudio.org wrote about this in 2009.

Harper’s Weekly via The New York Times Archive, picks up the story:

“He was a very lonely little creature, the other dogs taking exception to his Oriental habits and appearance,** and when the Prince and Princess of Wales returned from the a Continental trip, the latter pleaded with her mother-in-law to be allowed to take Looty to Sandringham.  About six months later Looty’s mate arrived from China, and the breeding of this species of dog became a diversion in fashionable society.”

He became quite a celebrity in his day and certainly has to be recorded as quite the most unusual piece of plunder.

Eventually, of course, his bones may well have to be repatriated . . .

Looty in Imperial Palace Looty, 1865, Sandringham


10,000 times over the estimate . . . perhaps we should get rid of them altogether ?


opinion hl

Not a lot of people know Taylor’s Auction Rooms, founded as a family business in 1974. A few may have heard of Montrose, a once sleepy fishing port on the east coast of Scotland and which turned to the oil industry during the now long forgotten boom times. But the auction room isn’t exactly Sotheby’s, and Montrose is as far away from Bond Street as it’s possible to imagine.


That having been said, Taylor’s in Montrose was home a couple of weeks ago to what is being termed by the local paper, The Courier, as The Sale of the Century: it’s not often that a couple of bits of Chinese porcelain, one in decidedly distressed condition, shoved into a general sale, sell for 10,000 times the estimate.

It was an apparently modest lot, estimated at £20-30. It went for £200,000 hammer – an estimated £252,000 when commission and VAT is added. The auctioneers, who declined to comment in any detail, were, in local parlance, ‘fair scunnert’ as they ran their calculators over the day’s takings. A spokesman for Taylor’s said, “Unfortunately, we can’t say much more at this time while we are still waiting for the sale to be finalised.” That is, of course, shorthand for “until we get paid”.

10,000 times estimate

10,000 times the £20 estimate . . . it’s got to be the moonflask!

The catalogue described the winning duo as ‘a Chinese blue and white two-handled vase with six character mark’ and ‘a Chinese blue and white pot with four character mark.’ The larger 18.5 cm tall piece looks suspiciously like a moon flask and the smaller one like a baluster vase decorated with prunus leaves. Probably Kangxi. Quite a bit of damage was evident on both and there was evidence of some stapling. However, they were intently viewed by some members of the Scottish antique trade. One confessed that he went to his bank and “drew everything out”. He went to the sale with £60,000 in his pocket but didn’t even get a bid in . . .  Chinese internet bidders, who doubtless had never seen the lot except online, racked up the bids until it was a two way contest and someone’s nerve went at nearly a quarter of a million all-in.

This does, of course, raise all sorts of interesting hypotheses. Perhaps, auctioneers would be rather more comfortable with a situation where they were not obliged to make estimates which might turn out to be, let us say, somewhat wide of the mark?

Of course, there is always another possibility. Perhaps, the flask and vase were not quite worth £200,000 plus. We’ve all bought something which looked nice enough on the net but was a trifle disappointing once the box was opened . . .

Note: The last record price at Taylor’s was in 2010 for a photograph album. The family-run business describes itself as ‘one of the leading auction houses in Scotland’ selling 4,000 lots every four weeks (often running two sales in tandem). It employs 50 staff. A few more sales like this and the Bond Street office might be in the offing . . . prepare to move over, Sotheby’s.




Auctioneers look to Asia for expansion

opinion hl

It is being reported that the larger auction houses are looking to Asia for growth over the next few years. We reported, almost a month ago, that the substantial provincial house Woolley & Wallis attributed their success during 2014 to the twin effects of their Asian sales and their jewellery sales. Now, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s are identifying Asia, and particularly Greater China (the PRC, Hong Kong and Taiwan) as the repository of their hopes in the near and medium future.

However, there is a slightly different cast to this analysis than that of recent times. Rather than looking to China and the Chinese recovering their heritage in the salerooms, there is a realisation that Chinese buyers are becoming more ambitious and wide ranging in their quest for art: they are becoming a regular, and vital, feature of Impressionist and Modern art sales, as well as jewellery and European furniture sales, especially in the area of highly decorated, extravagant pieces which appeal to the Asian palate.

The new President of Christie’s Mr Jussi Pylkkaenen is reported by The Antiques Trade Gazette as saying, ‘It’s not just the amount of money they are spending, but how they are spending it that matters. They are moving on from buying just Asian art to new categories.’

It is understood that Sotheby’s, soon to announce their 2014 results, will report that their Greater Chinese clients spent more than US$1bn. at their auctions. Quite apart from any national analysis, both houses seem to be saying that around 30% of their sales last year came from buyers new to them.

If Chinese buyers are moving on to European and international items will this diminish their interest in buying back their own art? This is what many experts are wondering. The key probably lies in the fact that the number of new buyers entering the market at auction generally is expanding dramatically. It seems doubtful if Europe or, even, America is providing such new entrants in vast numbers. We suspect that a large proportion of them are from so-called Greater China, including SE Asia.

This represents a newly affluent middle class with sums in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend at auction. This is a market which is set to expand dramatically and which will, in numbers if not in cash, overtake the more traditional millionaire (and now billionaire) sector of the population. They will be the unknown internet bidders hunched over their computers in bedrooms and boxrooms from Beijing to Baotou driving up the prices in the auction rooms of the UK.


After a strong end to 2014, what of 2015 in the Chinese art market?

opinion hl

The month of December brought a string of successful Chinese art and antiques auctions throughout England. Interestingly, these results were entirely from what is often pejoratively termed ‘provincial auction houses’, who are sometimes located nearer the source of supply than your Christie’s or Sotheby’s. At the same time, disturbing rumours were coming out of China itself: sales were on the slide and the heat was going out of the market.

As we previously reported, December kicked off on the 2nd with Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull’s highly successful Asian Art sale at St Neots in Cambridgeshire. Their decision to move ‘nearer the smoke’ seemed to have been fully justified: an extraordinary £220,000 for a small, repaired Kangxi vase with a bit of provenance; £200,000 for an admittedly unusual Yonzheng celadon and blue charger; a pair of Yongzheng doucai bowls, £75,000; and an 18th or, maybe, 19th century carved wooden brush pot for £48,000.

L&T £280,000 vase fake Kangxi

Also on December 2, Anderson & Garland of Newcastle sold a collection of some 132 gouache on pith paper scenes of what would appear to be Imperial courtly life.  The 11 red paper-covered albums sold for £32,000 to a Chinese buyer in the UK.

anderson & garland2

The next day, December 3, at Hanson’s in Derbyshire, a collection of jades put together by Russian General Theodor Rubiec Masalski, who served in China and was a former military attaché in Beijing, fetched over £60,000.

Masalski collection sold by Hansons

The following day, December 4, Sussex auctioneers Tooveys exposed a relatively small but pretty Qianlong famille rose calligraphic vase with Imperial connections.  It had an extensive rivet repair to the neck and some losses but, nevertheless, sold on the hammer for £520,000 to a Chinese buyer in the room, who competed with bidders from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada and the UK who fought it out over nine telephone lines. This was the highest regional price of the year for an item of Chinese art in a provincial room.

tooveys 520,000 vase

Sherborne auctioneers Charterhouse rounded off this series of provincial Chinese auction successes on December 16 with the sale of a set of six Republic period porcelain panels for £140,000. In the famille verte and famille rose palettes, the Republic  (1911-49) porcelain panels were by an unidentified artist (single panel illustrated below). They were knocked down for £140,000. It is worth noting that Charterhouse had previously sold a set of four panels by Wang Yeting, one of the so-called Eight Friends of Zhushan, for £420,000 in February 2014.

charterhouse porcelain panels

These dramatic sale results for out-of-London auctions came against a background of shrinking sales in China. Dealers we know in Beijing are reporting difficulties in shifting stock. The blame is firmly laid at the door of tough Chinese leader Xi Jinping who, in his drive to halt endemic corruption in all public bodies, has put, literally, the fear of death into officials who would normally around this time of year be receiving gifts from businessmen reliant upon their support in the securing of contracts, and business generally.

Some commentators have predicted the collapse of the whole Chinese art market, also affected by lower financial growth and restrictions on bank lending. Such a collapse seems to us unlikely. However, there can be little doubt that the Chinese art and antique market is undergoing something of a natural correction: having expanded so fast and so dramatically, that was inevitable at some stage. There were a considerable number of nervous participants in the boom and they will doubtless be breathing a sigh of relief now.

However, we do not think that medium-term this state of affairs will be perpetuated. Certainly, the first half of 2015 looks set for a rather less dramatic sales scenario which may well impact on UK auction prices.  We think that things will improve during the second half of the year: there are too many vested interests in China to allow more than a temporary dent in the market. Soon, the buyers will re-emerge within China as they regain their courage and find their ways around tough new rules and Xi Jinping will, himself, ease the pressure as he sees Chinese growth slowing to a dangerously low level.

At the same time, the number of potential buyers is growing all the time in China as demography kicks in and the affluent middle classes grow in number and in sophistication. They have already switched, to a certain extent, out of foreign designer goods and into experiential spending, most obviously reflected in world travel. It won’t be long before they discover porcelain and painting . . .

If the Chinese art well is drying up, how will the market change?

opinion hl

Putting together a well balanced catalogue with a few star items to carry along the sale and boost the prices on some of the less desirable pieces is a perennial problem for auctioneers. Nowhere is this more true than in the market for Chinese art objects where a few particularly desirable items tend to build interest in a sale as a whole. If you’re flying in from Beijing to buy a tasty thangka or a piece of particularly promising porcelain, then you might as well look closely at the catalogue for other lots to amortise your costs.

There was an interesting observation made in last week’s Antiques Trade Gazette by correspondent Roland Arkell. ‘Each year, as the well of market-fresh material from old Western collections begins to empty, it seems a little harder to put together a box-ticking sale of Chinese works of art than it was 12 months before. The squeeze seen in London this season – where takings in the Chinese marketplace effectively halved – is being seem elsewhere too. The low-hanging fruit has long been picked.’

This is an issue which is consuming auctioneers and dealers alike. Their livelihood depends on constantly unearthing interesting new things to sell. It is a given that a substantial proportion of the purchased or looted Chinese art imported into the UK during the 19th and 19th centuries has been unearthed by auctioneers trawling country houses, by specialist dealers approached to handle sales and, to a lesser extent, by ‘knockers’ accessing smaller and more remote collections. How much is actually left in the UK, whether reposing in glass cabinets or lurking unloved under the sink, is anybody’s guess but there can be little doubt of the fact, as Arkell puts it, that ‘the low-hanging fruit has long been picked’.

However, capitalism is a resilient phenomenon with a remarkable ability to regenerate under the most difficult conditions. The demand in the marketplace for Chinese art has, thus far, been very selective. It has been for the very best pieces, for large and instantly impressive pieces and for the undamaged. Nice large vases, Qianlong or Yongzheng mark and period, pairs of preferably, have tended to sail through the auction rooms amidst rising price hysteria. But what will happen when the most beautiful big vases and the most exquisite little pieces of jade are no longer to be had?

Well, of course, buyers will move on (or be directed by the cleverer dealers and auctioneers) to some rather more abstruse, currently unappreciated, areas of Chinese collecting currently not in favour with the market. There will be a renewed enthusiasm for more ordinary but, nonetheless, well crafted objects. And damaged items, presently abjured, will become acceptable if well and professionally repaired.


The Mary Stewart meiping vase: some small change out of £300,000

Last week at the Lyon & Turnbull sale in Cambridgeshire, a relatively small but quite pretty 19th century blue and white meiping vase, with an apocryphal Kangxi mark to the base, was offered for sale. You know the sort of thing, some of us have half a dozen of them in the storeroom . . . It was a vase that might reasonably have been expected, on a good day, to get £2,000. Although indubitably pretty, it has been extensively restored at some point in its history. Incredibly (it seemed in the room), it leapt up to a hammer price of £240,000 (premium would add another £59,250 to the bill taking it within a whisper of £300,000). Admittedly, it had a little bit of provenance, coming from the collection of the late Mary Stewart. She had been given it by her dealer Hugh Moss ‘to put on her desk and keep flowers in’. Of course, it may well have provided the inspiration for a slew of highly successful romantic novels, but that is hardly the point. It was simply a well crafted, relatively recent object in far from triple A condition.

We believe that we shall see, in the not so distant future, rather a lot of results like this as the market starts to dry up. (There was also a carved wooden brush pot in the same sale estimated at a few hundred pounds which got £48,000). Particularly attractive blue and white 19th century pieces, earlier Song dynasty pots, Chinese export ware (almost totally unappreciated by the Chinese market today) and 18th and 19th century cloisonné will make their mark in the auction rooms as the market moves on irrevocably.

Such is capitalism and the Chinese are now amongst the most enthusiastic adherents to this form of international economic activity. And, of course, there are more than one and a half billion of them harbouring a middle class which is growing dramatically in wealth and aspiration. One of the wells may be drying up but a lot of new boreholes are going to have to be sunk to satisfy a demand which will be seemingly insatiable.

Chiswick Auctions drop ivory sales after court case

China-Ivory-destru_2782691b ed

The trade magazine Antiques Trade Gazette reports in its current issue that Chiswick Auctions are to stop selling ivory pieces. The auction house was prosecuted October 13 for selling a lot catalogued as ‘an antique carved ivory tusk worked as a train of elephants.’ Under CITES regulations it is illegal to sell items containing ivory which date from after an arbitrary cut-off date of 1947.

Chiswick had previously sold the piece to a Portobello Road trader from whom it was seized in a police raid. The police sent the item away for testing (at a reputed cost in excess of £2,000) and a laboratory test indicated that it came from an elephant deceased in the mid-1960s. Chiswick chose to plead guilty and were fined £4,500 (the maximum fine being £5,000) which was reduced to a still very hefty £3,200 after taking into consideration the guilty plea.

Now Chiswick’s managing director has apparently told ATG that his auction house “will lead the way” with a self-imposed ban on all ivory sales except where ivory constitutes less than 5% of the object concerned.

opinion hl

The View from Here This most unfortunate case, which we have written on before, raises many disturbing issues, viz.

it seems unfortunate to us that Chiswick Auctions failed to defend the action. Clearly, a mistake was made and, giving them the benefit of the doubt, the Lot either slipped through in the normal chaos of daily life in an auction room, or, possibly, the employee who allowed it to go on sale genuinely thought it was a piece pre-1947.

Frankly, it is extremely difficult very often to tell between a piece from 1947 and one from 1964-66. As such, the law as it stands is unworkable. We are doubtful about the laboratory testing and extending the logic to the extreme implied by the law, can the laboratory tell between a piece made in December 1946 and one originating in January 1947. To put it bluntly, in this case, as the old adage goes, the law is an ass.

The fine imposed was at the uppermost level allowed by the Act controlling trade in endangered species. This was a first offence, the consideration involved was, in monetary terms, very modest, and there was no evidence to the fact that this had been a deliberate course of action perpetrated by the accused. The evidence appears to suggest it was a genuine mistake that was made and a fine of a few hundred pounds would seem to us to be nearer the mark.

Having received such a punitive fine, in our view, instead of meekly caving in, the auction house would have been best advised to lodge an appeal against the sentence. To respond by claiming to lead the way on banning ivory sales seems disingenuous and rather unfortunate. These proceedings will inevitably pass into both case law and folklore and will further serve the cause of driving the trade in genuine and unique historic artefacts underground. The witch hunt is set to continue . . .

Ivory witch hunt about to take off at Ealing Magistrates’ Court

opinion hl

On Monday of next week, London auctioneer Chiswick Auctions goes to court charged under the criminal law of this land. What have they done?

No, they have not breached specious health and safety regulations, been party to murder or manslaughter, or part of some dreadful conspiracy to defraud the public in operating a so-called ring. They haven’t even got unpaid parking tickets, so far as I know.

No, they are alleged to have sold an ivory tusk worked as a train of elephants. And, horror of horrors, it is alleged it was from an elephant that died in 1960, or thereabouts, after the extraordinary CITES deadline of 1948. Apparently, the disputed object has been, most expensively for the public purse, tested and found to be ten or twelve years younger than the designated age required by a piece of faulty legislation. Frankly, I am even dubious about the test but best say no more about that at this stage . . .

I recently drank several  exceedingly good pints of beer whilst debating with dealers in antiques (and ivory) at length as to how one might determine between a piece of worked ivory from an animal killed in December 1948 and one killed in January 1949. It might sound a ridiculous discussion but the legislation on the statute book requires dealers and experts to reach such a precise determination. Of course, nobody can, and the legislation is unworkable except for in the present environment when rationale has gone out of the window and, even the Royal Family has taken highly worked and important historical pieces taken off display.

The extinction of species like elephant and rhinoceros is utterly deplorable, that is agreed by all thinking people, but the destruction of historically significant works of careful craftsmanship, made long ago, will not go one inch towards saving animals hunted by determined modern day poachers in Africa, or elsewhere. It would be far more constructive to ban and confiscate all easily identifiable large bore weaponry that has to be used to bring down large animals like the rhino and the elephant.

As a responsible journalist, and a member of The National Union of Journalists, I shall not debate the facts or circumstances of this particular case (we may do here afterwards). The case is, under British law, sub judice. Suffice to say, here at chineseart.co.uk, we sniff the strong smell of a witch hunt. And, certainly, if the case goes against Chiswick next week, we shall likely see the complete removal of ivory from auctions all over the country.

You don’t have to be the sharpest knife in the drawer to understand what the effect of that will be. Ivory pieces will cease to be traded ‘over the counter’ neither at auction, nor even on the Portobello Road where this piece was sourced by PC Plod for the magnificent sum of £100 (presumably, it came out of Metropolitan Police expenses). Beautifully worked ivory will become a black market and will likely retreat onto the dark areas of the Internet only known to the criminal fraternity. And, of course, the price will rocket . . .

PC Plod would be better advised, in our view, to hang around London airport in the interests of public safety to catch ISIS terrorists, rather than pieces of carefully worked ivory to be found in shops and street markets and which apparently don’t quite make an arbitrary 1948 cut-off date.


ChineseArt.co.uk is one year old!

Paul with famille verte pot

The end of the first week in October 2014 marks the first anniversary of this website ChineseArt.co.uk. It also represents the culmination of 12 months effort building up the site from a standing start. At the beginning of October last year, nobody knew of this site and today there are many hundreds of thousands of hits every month and more than 20,000 a month of you visit the site regularly for news of developments on the Chinese art scene from auctions to exhibitions, from prices to promotions, from galleries to stunning photo images : it is all here.

This site is part of the Paul Harris Asia Arts Group (www.paulharrisasiaarts.co.uk)  which also encompasses sister site www.vietnamart.co.uk, the selling site www.chineseartinscotland.co.uk, and www.coldinghamgallery.co.uk. We also represent the Chinese sculptor Chen Dapeng (www.chendapengsculptor.com).

Apart from visiting this site, you can follow all our postings on Twitter @chineseartpaul. And this Twitter feed can be found at the foot of our Home page.

Thank you for looking at this site! We shall continue to keep it as interesting as possible.

Paul Harris

Paul Harris Asia Arts




‘But is it the real thing?’

opinion hl by Paul Harris

But is it the real thing? This must be one of the most oft heard queries at auction viewings of Chinese ceramics and works of art these days. Even if it’s not heard, it’s what is constantly going through the minds of collectors and dealers as they survey the offerings. The widespread prevalence of fakes, forgeries, copies, replicas or what ever you may care to term them, has led to much doubt, cynicism and downright disbelief in the marketplace. As a collector and dealer said to me last week, “You know, of course, that 90% of the stuff coming to the market these days is fake.”

Let’s look at that sort of assertion in a bit more detail. As we wrote in our recent articles on Yongzheng and Quianlong chargers, many of these are based on much earlier Ming examples. In that sense, they are later copies but still command very substantial prices. The skills devoted to making such copies are still regarded, rightly, extremely highly which is why such copies command six figure sums very often. The same chargers (or bowls, stem cups, whatever) were copied in the 19th century, sometimes together with the original marks, or with Guangxu, Daoguang or Jiaqing marks. They are, of course, copies but these often not created with the intention of straightforward fraud: like their Yoingzheng or Quianlong predecessors they represented an effort to produce works of equal quality in tribute to long gone craftsmen. Some of that work was rather good and tends to still command worthwhile prices.

cais yongzheng charger SONY DSC Yonzheng charger

Dragon chargers: one Yongzheng, one Quianlong and one late 20th century.            Take your choice!

Copies made later, in the 20th century, require some distinction as to intent. Things knocked off a few months ago on the outskirts of Jingdezhen in back rooms do not generally enjoy very much in terms of quality and, rightly, are looked down upon in the marketplace and are virtually worthless. That is not to say, of course, that some people don’t unwittingly pay good money for them.

However, some modern copies are extremely good and can test even the most expert of experts. Much time, skill and money is expended on producing authentic looking copies. Testing, with its 200-year leeway, is of little use when you are talking about 18th or 19th century pieces. It’s only any good with much earlier pieces. It is said that craftsmen in Jingdezhen in recent years have spent up to EIGHT years working on a single piece to the order of major museums in Beijing who desire to lock away the original and display the faithful copy. The replicas are, apparently, indistinguishable from the real thing. We wonder  if there are any rejects about which, let us say, just failed in some respect to meet the exacting criteria and which have managed to reach the market?

And then there are some really excellent copies produced under licence for sale by major museums, like the Shanghai Museum. Their copies are very pleasing, look good on display and, actually, aren’t that cheap. You can easily spend a couple of thousand in the museum shop acquiring a nice replica. Generally, however, they should be identified as such by any reasonably competent auction house . . .

I know a lot of people who only buy at Christie’s or Sotheby’s. They say the research is excellent and they have a copper-bottomed guarantee, so to speak, if anything they buy turns out to be in the slightest bit dubious. They feel they can buy with absolute confidence. Of course, that guarantee doesn’t come cheap. It usually comes with a price two, three or,even, four hundred per cent times the cost of acquisition in a provincial auction room without the magic cachet.

There again, the provincial room sometimes scores. Like very recently, when Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh exposed a blue and white charger for sale. Catalogued as late 19th/early 20th century with apocryphal Quianlong mark, and estimated at £3,000-5,000, by the time it came to be sold the market had decided rather differently after a great buzz on the grapevine. It got £427,250, inclusive of premium. So several bidders were convinced that the catalogue description was inaccurate. Personally, after viewing and handling it, I rather agreed with the auctioneers, as did some others. Sometimes it does just boil down to being a matter of opinion . . .  And even experts can disagree.

record breaking charger recordbreaking charger mark The £427,250 charger

When the hammer came down on a 1946 ink painting Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree by the master Qi Baishi, in May 2011, it was to cost the equivalent of US$65.4m. But the winning bidder declined to pay for it: he defaulted after a well known art critic, Mou Jianping, declared that it might be a fake, in direct contradiction to the auction house’s advisers, and the firm belief of the Shanghai billionaire collector who owned the picture, Liu Yiqian.

eagle standing on a prine tree Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree

In the end of the day, it is very often simply a matter of opinion. I have quite a number of pieces I fondly imagine to be early Ming but I am sure so-called experts would disagree with me. But I still get enormous pleasure from looking at them, handling them and appreciating their beauty. Dreams may not exactly come free. But you can get them for relatively little in cash and enjoy them just as a billionaire might enjoy his own somewhat pricier purchase.

Desire broadens in the Chinese art market

opinion hl

Not only does the market remain firm this year, contrary to gloomy predictions of a slump, but also there is increasing evidence of a distinct broadening in the market. By this, we mean that whole areas of new collecting are opening up and that objects once regarded as ‘too academic’, or simply obscure, are becoming the subject of some furious competitive bidding at auction. To a large extent, auctions continue to lead the market: the only public forum for the noting and recording of prices internationally.

It was not so long ago, back in 2012, that good pieces of blue and white were favoured by the market and there were some record prices achieved, both in London and in some provincial salerooms like Tennants in Leyburn, Yorkshire. Now that the supply of high quality pieces of blue and white new to the market is drying up, with only a handful of previously unseen items appearing, the seemingly insatiable appetite, principally from mainland China, for interesting items is broadening into areas hitherto hardly considered for collecting.

A case in point was a Quianlong mark and period hat or wig stand which achieved a stunning £444,240 at Cambridge auctioneers Cheffins on March 27. It is 27cm. high and incorporates what the auctioneers say is ‘a rare gilt café au lait ground together with panels glazed to imitate turquoise’. Not the real thing, you understand. It is intriguingly constructed and reasonably attractive, but you can understand why it was estimated simply at £10,000-20,000. After all, there is not a great history of collecting such obscure objects and until last month they did not appear to be particularly coveted.

Quianlong hat and wig standNearly half a million quid: Quianlong hat or wig stand

In the future, we are sure that there will be more of this type of ‘surprise result’. Auctioneers are realising that a good story may intrigue potential buyers of unusual objects and achieve gratifyingly high prices. On May 15, Bonhams are to sell two highly unusual things: an enormous, quite possibly Imperial, screen and an unusual jade puzzle. The price either will achieve is really anybody’s guess – Bonhams have estimated up to £1.2m. on the screen and are talking about a quarter of a million for the intriguing jade puzzle. Really this is all new territory. Estimates are all very well if the buyers can be tempted into competition and, as we all know, it only takes two bidders so you don’t have to exactly generate worldwide interest . . .

The antiques guru on Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV (accessible in Europe via Freesat) recently singled out Northern and Southern Song pieces as the next big growth area and we recently bid up to £8,000 for a nice piece of purple-splashed jun ware with good provenance, and then let it go to a Chinese buyer on the internet. A few years ago, 5-800 would have been more than adequate to obtain such a piece.

So there are going to be some big prices in the near future for the more unusual items, previously unfavoured. Of course, there may be some disappointments along the road as not been read, or predicted, accurately enough.