The Year of the Horse is upon us!

The Year of the Horse is almost upon us! January 31 sees the beginning of the Chinese New Year.

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One of the prime exponents of the art of the horse has to be Chinese artist Xu Beihong (1895-1953). Here he manages to capture the energy and the pride of the animal. Indubitably, his best pictures were of horses.

In Chinese astrology, the Year of the Horse is regarded as a lucky one which will bring good things. The horse of legend embodies many desirable characteristics: strength, courage and resilience. The horse is regarded as a heroic presence, not least because important battles throughout history were won due to its strength and power. The two pictures here do, we think, reflect those characteristics.

Below we have a superb ink drawing. We have not been able to identify the artist as yet (if you recognise who it might be do let us know!). A beautiful piece of draughtsmanship, it is a spirited work which well captures the capricious nature of the horse. . .

lr scroll ,horse, pen & ink

Photographs courtesy Chinese Art in Scotland. Both pictures can be seen on their site and are available for purchase.

 

The challenge of filling China’s new museums

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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.

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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.’

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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.

£255,000 Yuan Charger as Telephone and Internet dominate at Mallams

The high point of the October 23 Asian, Oriental & Islamic sale at Mallams of Cheltenham’s was the sale of a Yuan dynasty charger for £255,000 on the hammer. Certificated by Oxford Authentication as being from the period 1200-1400,this early piece of blue and white was in generally good condition. It was sold on the telephone and we understand the successful bidder was from the UK. Asked if it was destined to return to China, the auctioneers said ‘not necessarily so’.

Pre-sale it was estimated at £70,000-90,000.

Mallams Yuan Dynasty charger est 70-90,000

Telephone and internet dominated the sale and slowed progress. It was a large sale with 749 lots exposed for sale. It took eight hours to complete the sale. Other prices included £16,000 for a yellow ground mid to late 19th century fish tank. It was estimated at £3,000-5,000.

Mallams yellow fround fish tank

An intriguing Junyao Jun ware bowl, its antecedents firmly established by its box, stamps and inscriptions from the Nanjing Museum Protection Committee (1947), was estimated at £1,000-2,000 and fetched £8,000 to a telephone bidder, underbid in the room by Chinese Art in Scotland. Buyers in the room found themselves outbid by telephone or internet on many of the better lots.

Lot 55 Junyao Jun-ware bowl

A watercolour scroll painting in just reasonable condition by listed artist Xu Ling Lu, which had languished rolled up on the floor underneath a table during the viewing, fetched £7,000.

Mallams Xu Ling Lu 7000