Qi Baishi becomes the most expensive Chinese painter!


The painter Qi Baishi became the first Chinese artist to join the £100 million club at the end of last year. The week before Christmas, a set of ink brush panels entitled Twelve Landscape Screens (1925), sold for a staggering 931.5 million yuan (well over £100m.) at the Poly Beijing auction house. It is the highest price ever paid for a work of Chinese art at auction.

Only a dozen or so other works—by artists  like Warhol, Picasso and van Gogh—have sold at auction for more than the equivalent of £100 million, although a number of others have reportedly been sold privately in that price area.

There is no doubt that this work was particularly interesting and probably represented value for money as, effectively, the purchaser (unknown) did get twelve pictures for the price of one.

Controversial artist Qi Baishi to feature in upcoming Chiswick Chinese sale

Chiswick Auctions have announced a sale on May 15 dedicated to Chinese paintings. Following recent successes in the field of Chinese paintings, including the Buckman Collection (total sales £55,000), the Aldrick Collection (total sales £31,000) and Pearson Collection (total sales £24,156) all with 100% sell through rates, they have just announced their inaugural specialist paintings sale with one by Qi Baishi heading up the event.

Qi Baishi, oft copied  Qi Baishi: prolific and controversial

Qi Baishi (1864-1957) is a controversial artist and assessment, and valuation, of his work isalmost always tricky, to put it mildly. Works ascribed to him can vary in price from just a few hundred pounds to a record US$65.4m. This extremely high figure was the hammer price in Beijing in May 2011 for ‘Eagle on a Pine Tree’. The vendor was the renowned taxi driver and handbag seller turned collector and gallerist from Shanghai, Mr Liu Yixian. Celebrations for the high price achieved were aborted after the purchaser read a critique by a well known authority of his new acquisition in the Beijing press alleging it to be a forgery. It was never paid for and, so far as we know, it still lurks in Yixian’s extensive collection.

Qi Baishi eagle $65.4m. unpaid Eagle in a Pine Tree

Attribution of works to Qi Baishi is rendered difficult both by the very large numbers of copies – actually forgeries – which abound and also the techniques employed in his own studio. As a result of the high demand which existed for his work towards the end of his life, virtually his entire (and very large) family worked in his studio adding features to his work. Exactly how much of a later picture is the work of the master is much confused by these well known studio practices.

Qi Baishi Bees & Chrysanthemums Bees and Chrysanthemums

It is difficult to pass an opinion on ‘Bees and Chrysanthemums’ which will be sold May 15 from the collection of David Chipp (1927-2008). It is an attractive enough picture and Chiswick have put a very modest estimate of just £20,000-30,000 on it. Effectively, they are allowing the market to decide and potential purchasers will doubtless be seeking out Qi Baishi experts. The painting was certainly done at the very end of the artist’s life: Chipp was recommended to buy it by his translator when he was working in China for Reuters news agency during the period 1956-60.

Clearly, the old adage applies, caveat emptor.

‘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.

Wall Street Journal spreads doom and gloom on Chinese art market

calligraphy in decline

The Wall Street Journal has spread gloom and doom on the Chinese art market over the holiday period. Its views have been repeated in articles in the national press of many countries, including The Australian (December 27, China’s Art Market in Decline).

The original article, published on December 18 in New York, draws upon a document with the weighty title of The 2012 Global Chinese Antiques and Art Auction Market Annual Statistical Report. We must confess to not having come across this annual report before, but we do note it is a report on activity during 2012. We are now in 2014 and respectfully submit that the market has changed substantially in the last two years. The onetime British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, once famously observed that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. Two years in the current dynamic Chinese art market is an eternity.

The report is published by the well known firm of art sales records analysts, Artnet, working with The China Association of Auctioneers. Artnet claims to have compared the Chinese mainland’s principal auctions houses’ stated results with those of tax filings submitted to China’s Ministry of Commerce, suggesting a substantial over-statement of prices achieved. Surprise, surprise they have found a discrepancy between tax filings and claimed business. Frankly, you would most probably find a similar discrepancy anywhere in the West . . .

The report does note that prices remained stable for Chinese art sold elsewhere in Asia (principally Taipei, Singapore and Hong Kong) and in New York. Outside China, the average price paid for a Chinese work of art ‘hovered’ around US$56,000, compared to the 2011 figure of $55,600. Not such a bad result, really.

Meantime, prices for art sold within China dropped by nearly one third to an average of $16,300. This hardly seems surprising after the untypical mania which developed around 2008-09. It seems now to be operating at similar levels to those internationally, doubtless due to the prevalence of the internet.

The report does, however, highlight the very real area of defaults, which shows that around 40% of high level purchases were not followed through, i.e. were not paid for. This problem is almost exclusively at the high end of the market where there has been a somewhat relaxed attitude by bidders to the requirement to follow through and actually pay for purchases bid upon at public auction. This has been something of a cultural phenomenon reflecting an ignorance of the obligations incurred at the moment of bidding. It is only now that the full implications of bidding are being understood by some Chinese auction buyers.

The other element in failure to complete on purchases with auction houses is, of course, the problem of widespread forgery. When a buyer sees the artwork he has just bought described in the media, or online, as a forgery, he is unlikely to complete. Qi Baishi’s 1946 ink painting Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree was knocked down in May 2011 for a world record US$65.4m. It was the most expensive Chinese painting ever sold. But an online critic almost immediately raised doubts about its authenticity and the sale was tainted. It remains uncollected in a warehouse – and unpaid for. It also serves to dent statistical figures out of all proportion in a statistical comparison.

The forgery issue is one which has become all pervasive just in the last couple of years. It will take another year or two before auctioneers fully get a handle on it. Just a few months ago, our own business, chineseartinscotland.co.uk, bought an attractive looking cylinder jar at a well known firm of UK auctioneers. It was only when we got back to the gallery and exposed it to powerful photographic lights, that we could discern the fact that a heat transfer had been applied, bearing the imagery. In the event, the auctioneer was very decent about it, agreed with our findings and promptly returned our money. I don’t know what statistical database it went into, if any.

For newspapers, the fall of a much vaunted high value industry, for that is what the Chinese market is, makes great copy. Especially when you have spent years building it up . . . Just like buying Chinese art, the same caution applies to such coverage. Caveat emptor !

As Winston Churchill justly observed, ‘There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.’



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