Expanding Asian Art in London to start November 5

aal logo

The annual Asian bean-feast Asian Art in London continues to grow apace. Its new handy vest-pocket sized catalogue is decidedly the thickest yet. There are more exhibitors than ever at the event which runs from November 5-14. New AAL participants include contemporary art galleries Art China, Gallery Elena Schukina (contemporary Koean photo artist Seung-Hwan) Oh and Paul Harris Asia Arts with the sculptures of Chen Dapeng at Olympia.

You can get a copy of the invaluable pocket catalogue (we use ours all the year round as an essential reference work in the office) by emailing info@asianartinlondon.com or you can, of course consult the website www.asianartinlondon.com.

There are a couple of what might be termed ‘prestige events’. On November 5, the event opens with a symposium at The Royal Institution which is intriguingly entitled The Psychology of A Collector. Collectors intending to turn up will probably be relieved to hear that there are no qualified psychologists speaking so they need have no fears of any serious embarrassment! Attendance will knock you back £105 so you have a right to expect some special insights . . .

The following night the Gala Party takes place. This year it is at The Mandarin Oriental and it celebrates the UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange with support from the Chinese Embassy. Although he has been rushed off his feet by the long, intensive visit of President Xi Jinping last week, you can expect to see Ambassador Li Xiaoming and several brace of Chinese dignitaries basking in the glow of last week’s successful visit. Tickets for the bash are available at a mere £60 a go.

Other definite notes for the diary are the drinks party rounds on Saturday November 7 (Kensington Church Street), Sunday November 8 (St James’s) and Monday November 9 (Mayfair). It is an excellent series of opportunities to get around the exhibitors without cutting into the routines of actual business. They’re also free . . .

We shall be posting news and pictures on chineseart.co.uk.


‘Economist’ magazine claims ‘China’s once bustling art trade is flagging’

In this week’s issue, the influential British magazine The Economist says that ‘China’s once bustling art trade is flagging’. Down at The Economist, they like their puns: the article is headed up ‘Blue period’.

viewing auction items

Down but not out . . . Chinese auction buyers in Paris

Although worldwide art sales last year reached a record $65 billion (the trackable ones, that is) according to the European Fine Art Foundation. However, while Britain and the USA boom, auction sales in mainland China amounted to $5.5 billion, 40% below their 2011 peak, according to the China Association of Auctioneers and online Artnet. Global sales last year of Chinese art and antiques $7.9 billion, down 31% from three years earlier. Russian and Brazilian art is also well down in sales performance.

However, the Chinese art market has been notoriously unpredictable. In 2005, the China art market accounted for under 5% of global sales. By 2011, its share had rocketed to 30%! Then, in 2012, the market fell back by a staggering 43% – but rebounded in 2013! Now it can be seen to have fallen back again last year. Last year, it is reckoned that more than half of auction lots exposed in Chinese sales were unsold. As a result, many potential vendors are not exposing items at auction so quality is poor at auction and that further depresses demand.

PolyCulture is the largest auctioneer in China and although the Chinese government and military effectively control it, the shares on the market have fallen by around one half since last year’s public offering. Last year, Poly expanded its own stock of art by 82% in a bid to shore up the market. Despite that, revenue slumped by 27% in the first six months of this year.

The most worrying statistic to come out of China is that last year buyers failed to pay for 63% of works ‘sold’ for over $1.5m. Those of us working in the market in the UK are also aware, from a vendor’s point of view, of works languishing in the warehouses of auctioneers, unclaimed, unloved . . . and unpaid.

Chineseart.co.uk opinion What is going on then? The clampdown by President Xi Jinping on gifts and corruption has indubitably affected the art market in China. As China sinks deeper into a potential economic mire, the brakes are going to have to come off. It won’t be sudden but gradual as it cannot appear to represent a policy U-turn. Growth is also weakened in China but, again, corrective action will be taken by the Chinese leadership. If they lose grip on an economy over which they have pretty much total control there will be a severe danger of unrest within China. The market may be down this year (and last year) but it can equally well rebound next year as new buyers emerge in China’s burgeoning middle class. There is still vast spending power in China.

Chinese official’s ‘severe’ warning on destruction of cultural heritage

The Reuters News Agency in Beijing reported yesterday that many treasures of China’s thousands of years of culture face being plundered, sometimes violently, or disappearing under bulldozers as the authorities either do not care or do not have the resources to look after them. This is all according to  a top Chinese cultural chief.

In an interview published this week in an official Communist Party newspaper The Study Times, Director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage Li Xiaojie said the situation he faced in trying to protect the country’s culture was “severe”.

From 2009 to last year, the police uncovered more than 7,000 cases of cultural artefacts being stolen, smuggled out of the country or otherwise plundered, especially tombs, Mr Li told the newspaper, published by the Central Party School, which trains rising officials.

tomb robbed

Holes made by tomb raiders in cornfields, Luonan County, Shaanxi Province, July 2011 Photo China Daily

‘These criminal activities are organised, use high technology and violence, and steal to order,” Mr Li said, adding that efforts to crack down had achieved some results, but he said the road ahead would be hard and difficult.

tomb robber

Henan gang leader Pan Liuso detained at Danfeng Country Detention House accused of tomb raiding China Daily pic

He said that there were also more heritage buildings damaged by fire. There were 74 reported cases since 2010, with more than 30 per cent of the fires caused by electrical faults.

The fires caused terrible damage to the heritage buildings, with some totally destroyed .

Another problem was that some local governments seemed not to care about the treasures in their jurisdiction, or simply lacked the ability to look after them.

“In some culturally protected areas or where there are construction controls, there is illegal construction, damaging the historical features, including the treasures themselves. Some precious ancient sites and buildings have vanished beneath bulldozers,” Mr Li said.

In many cases, the damage was actually caused by local governments and officials, he alleged.

There were 789 such reported cases between 2012 and last year, with 146 of them involving major historical and cultural sites protected at the national level.

He said there were 29 such cases last year, quoting the Bao’en Temple in Sichuan province and Arxan Railway Station in Inner Mongolia as examples where illegal constructions had been carried out.

arxan shan railway station

Arxan Shan Railway Station: classic building destroyed by developers last year

But Mr Li said this was hardly surprising as his administration lacked people and money to protect cultural artefacts. In four provinces, there were fewer than 10 people available for the work.

Chinese Art comments: Really Mr Li Xiaojie is commenting on two unrelated phenomena which should be considered as separate issues: the issue of criminally damaging and stealing from ancient tombs and similar sites and the quite separate issue of the destruction of ancient sites and historic buildings by commercial property developers, often working in league with corrupt local authority officials.

Fortunately, President Xi Jinping is now vigorously ensuring that corrupt public officials are tracked down, tried and punished severely. This is at the centre of official Chinese policy. Developers who work with local officials and/or destroy state-protected assets can fully expect to be in the spotlight. State officials, instructed by the Presidency, will likely soon get around to arresting and punishing them.

The issue of tomb raiding has been around ever since the Chinese art market started to take off in the 1990s and is not new. Several factors are starting to militate against it as a profitable activity. The international Chinese art boom is now over, for the moment. Buyers, collectors and auction houses are now very cautious and are insisting on ‘provenance’ which is something the tomb raiders can never provide. Also, the authorities are poised to clamp down on them and when this occurs it will be ruthless.



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.