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Chinese Antiquities: An Introduction to the Art Market

Chinese Antiquities: An Introduction to the Art Market

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Chinese Antiquities: An Introduction to the Art Market

320 pages
9 heures
Jan 1, 2016


Chinese Antiquities: An Introduction to the Art Market provides an essential guide to the growing market for Chinese antiquities, encompassing all sectors of the market, from Classical Chinese paintings and calligraphy to ceramics, jade, bronze and ritual sculpture. Aimed at current and aspiring collectors, investors and galleries interested in Chinese antiquities, the book sets out to demystify the process of buying and selling in the Asian context, highlighting Asia-specific issues that market-players might encounter and making this category of art more accessible to newcomers to the market.
Jan 1, 2016

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Chinese Antiquities - Audrey Wang




Series Editors: Derrick Chong and Iain Robertson

The art market is now a multi-billion-dollar industry employing hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide. Working within the art market brings a specific set of challenges, which are distinct from those of the conventional business world. Aimed at art world professionals and those working within the many sectors of art business, as well as those preparing for careers in the commercial art world, the Handbooks in International Art Business provide a series of authoritative reference guides to the structure and working of the international art market, incorporating core topics such as Art Law and Ethics as well as guides to different market sectors.

The Handbooks are written by experts in their field, many of whom teach at, or are graduates of, the MA in Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art at its London and New York campuses. Sotheby’s Institute of Art has pioneered the field of art business as both a professional and an academic discipline. Its MA in Art Business was established in 1999.



Audrey Wang

Lund Humphries

in association with Sotheby’s Institute of Art

First published in 2012 by Lund Humphries in association with Sotheby’s Institute of Art

Lund Humphries

Wey Court East

Union Road


Surrey GU9 7PT


Lund Humphries

Suite 420

101 Cherry Street


VT 05401-4405



Lund Humphries is part of Ashgate Publishing

Sotheby’s Institute of Art

30 Bedford Square


London WC1B 3EE


Sotheby’s Institute of Art

570 Lexington Avenue, 6th Floor

New York

NY 10022


© 2012 Audrey Wang

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Wang, Audrey.

Chinese antiquities: an introduction to the art market. --

(Handbooks in international art business)

1. Antiques--China.

I. Title II. Series


ISBN: 978-1-84822-065-2

e-book ISBN: 978-1-84822-107-9

Library of Congress Control Number: 2011942847

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electrical, mechanical or otherwise, without first seeking the permission of the copyright owners and the publishers.

Audrey Wang has asserted her right under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the Author of this work.

Edited by Alison Hill

Designed by Andrew Shoolbred

Set in Charter

Printed in the United Kingdom





Chronology of China

Part One A Global Trade

Chapter 1 Geopolitical Issues for the People’s Republic of China

Chapter 2 Historical Trade in Chinese Material Culture

Chapter 3 The Global Market Today

Part Two Today’s Chinese Art Market Sectors

Chapter 4 Traditional Painting and Calligraphy

Chapter 5 Chinese Ceramics

Chapter 6 Decorative Works of Art

Part Three The Structure of the Art Market

Chapter 7 Museums and Public Collections

Chapter 8 Collectors and the Art of Collecting Chinese Antiquities

Chapter 9 Chinese Art and Antique Dealers

Chapter 10 Chinese Art Auctions




Appendix A

Appendix B



My short stint working at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Singapore, inspired me to write this book, and I am indebted to several staff members who gave me this invaluable opportunity. David Bellingham approached me to write the book. I had initially misunderstood his proposition and thought he had asked me to contribute an essay, from which a three-week project evolved into three years. Iain Robertson and Derrick Chong, the series editors, provided much guidance and insight into writing about the business part of art, while Lucy Myers from Lund Humphries and Alison Hill gently steered me in the right direction. Research for this book would also not have been possible without the help of Anthony K.W. Cheung and Benjamin Yim of the Min Chiu Society, Roger Keverne, Nicolas Chow, Nicole Wright and Lynne Chan. My passion for Chinese art history stemmed in large part from my studies at SOAS and eventual job at Christie’s, and for that I have my teachers, Rosemary E. Scott and Y.C. Chen, and ex-colleagues, Anthony Lin, Pola Antebi, Chi Fan Tsang and Carrie Li, to thank. Finally, special thanks are due to my family: John, Matthew and Jasper McCartney for their love and support; and Edwin and Joy Wang, who first believed in me when no one else did.


The Chinese art world changed dramatically in 2005 when a rare, mid fourteenth-century blue and white pot (guan), with a hairline crack on the shoulder, sold for a record $27.7 million. There followed a spate of buying on the international and domestic Chinese markets that has never been equalled. Prices for Chinese Ming and Qing dynasty ceramics, white and green jade and traditional brush painting have since reached levels to challenge those attained by Impressionist and Abstract Expressionist painting. Hong Kong and Beijing are the new centres for the exchange of art and cultural artefacts. Audrey Wang’s book examines in detail the progress of these important markets for Chinese art.

Iain Robertson and Derrick Chong


On the art market today, one finds an extensive range of objects called ‘Chinese art’. At the top of the art hierarchy are classical paintings and calligraphy, and antiques of porcelain, jade, bronze, lacquer, stone sculpture, hardwood furniture and scholar’s objects. Modern and contemporary art from China command high prices at auctions and art galleries. At the lower end of the spectrum are smaller curios, Shanghai retro fashions, Maoist China memorabilia and reproductions of antique objects. The artworks that will be considered in this publication all date before 1911, which marks the end of dynastic rule in China.

This book is aimed at newcomers to the Chinese art and antiquities market, as well as established collectors. There are many aspects which are unique to the Chinese art market. Chinese art is collected all over the world and the international market for Chinese material culture has existed for nearly two millennia, if not more. The market for Chinese art is intricately linked with the many momentous historical events which occurred in China and around the world in the last hundred years, and this volume will attempt to describe and explain some of the metamorphoses that the Chinese art market has gone through, and how these events have shaped the market as we know it today. There are numerous informative publications which deal with the international art market, several of which touch on the Chinese art market. However, there are none in English that focus exclusively on traditional Chinese art, so this publication aims to fill that gap.

A large proportion of the art discussed in this book falls in the decorative arts category, as this reflects the general leanings of the market for traditional Chinese art. Fine art, which will be henceforth loosely termed ‘classical paintings and calligraphy’, is one of the most important aspects of Chinese art because of its elevated status among the elite class of scholars in China, from the Northern Song dynasty onwards. The genres of painting and calligraphy developed simultaneously in China and were reverently practised by scholar-officials, emperors and various intellectuals. Although the class of scholar-officials no longer exists in Chinese culture, the exclusive and scholarly nature of painting and calligraphy endures to the present day but, inevitably, limits true appreciation of these genres. More than just the aesthetic appeal of muted colours and minimalist, yet expressive, brushstrokes, the spirit in which the works were made, and the poetic resonance of the written characters, need to be felt and understood for a full appreciation. As such, classical paintings and calligraphy have been somewhat marginalised in the wider art market because few art enthusiasts are able to really appreciate this art form. This goes against the grain of the western perception of the art market, where fine art is the most valuable, both in dollar terms and where the artist as creator is situated at the top of the art market hierarchy, while the less expensive decorative arts, or arts and crafts, are at the bottom due to the anonymity of the makers and the multiples in which utilitarian items were made. This cross-cultural observation of the reversal of roles is partly a product of China’s domestic political and economic strife and its foreign policy-making through the twentieth century, when the market for Chinese art was dominated by American, British and European dealers, auction houses, buyers and sellers. The western preference for Chinese decorative arts (over fine art) has increased prices enormously over the years, particularly for Imperial porcelain, thereby elevating its importance over traditional painting and calligraphy.

Aesthetically, the decorative arts of China appeal to a wider (western) audience than do fine arts. The genteel renditions of birds, flowers, idyllic landscapes, mythology and domestic scenes found on Ming and Qing porcelains are very similar in spirit to those found on contemporaneous Old Master oil paintings and drawings from Europe. The fine porcelain also has great appeal to Europeans who were not able to replicate the same quality of material until the late seventeenth century. On the other hand, Chinese painting and, especially, calligraphy differ enormously from the western concept of painting, making it more challenging for non-Chinese viewers to appreciate the nuances of Chinese aestheticism. To gain wider international acceptance, many artists from the early twentieth century introduced western painting elements into their otherwise stylistically and thematically Chinese paintings. This development of aesthetic style to appeal to western taste is even more distinct in the twenty-first century with contemporary Chinese artists like Cai Guoqiang and Ai Weiwei drawing on both ancient and contemporary Chinese references but adopting a visual grammar comprehensible to international collectors, who may be equally interested in the works of western artists like Andy Warhol or Damien Hirst.

With the sudden influx of People’s Republic of China (PRC) Chinese buyers entering the art market in the twenty-first century, appreciation for traditional Chinese art has gone through another set of changes. Porcelain remains high in value and is much sought after by Chinese and western collectors alike; but the status of classical painting and calligraphy has been re-established, as a deeper sense of antiquarianism among Chinese collectors has drawn greater attention to this previously neglected genre. Increasingly we see a reversal of roles that will once again align themselves with the more widely accepted western paradigm of traditional fine art at the pinnacle, although it is unlikely that important categories within the decorative-arts sector – such as ceramics, jade and bronze – will ever be relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy. That is the main difference in the appreciation of Chinese and western art. This subject will be explored in greater detail in Chapter Three.

One of the key events in the twenty-first-century Chinese art market is the meteoric increase in Chinese contemporary-art prices, and the rapid expansion of that market. Many statistics gathered to give information about the Chinese art market take into account this new and very fashionable category. As this publication is focused on traditional art, the category of contemporary art will not be considered very much in the data and analyses to follow. However, it must be noted that the rise in popularity of contemporary Chinese art has had a major impact on the art world, both within China and on an international level. According to Arts Economic, from 2003 to 2007, the aggregate art market grew by 311 per cent, while the contemporary art market grew by 851 per cent. Of this, the emerging Chinese contemporary art market grew over 11,000 per cent during this four-year period, reflecting ‘the low base from which Chinese art markets started’ but also underlining the ‘rapid advance in prices and volumes in the thriving centres of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing’.¹ Much of this buying fervour has been attributed to speculative buying for investment, because during the recessionary years of 2008 and 2009 we saw a dumping of ‘stock’ with several high-value artworks being re-offered at auction shortly after having been purchased. With a short holding period of less than five years these artworks were offered at lower estimates. During this time, prices adjusted themselves to pre-2007 levels, a circumstance welcomed by many market observers who felt that the market had grown too strong too quickly and was getting out of control.

Coming out of recession in 2010, the Chinese contemporary art market fully recovered from the dips of 2008/09. The Chinese contemporary art market generally develops in tandem with the world economy, as the buyers and sellers come from the international arena and are all affected by the nuances of the world markets. A return to high priceranges in the post-recessionary period has asserted the volatile nature of the contemporary art market, which collectors find both exciting and disconcerting at the same time. Chinese artists who were previously unknown in the West now rank among top-selling household names like Picasso, Warhol and Hirst. In 2010, Qi Baishi, Zhang Daqian, Xu Beihong and Fu Baoshi ranked among the top ten artists by global revenue; while among the contemporary set, five out of ten artists were Chinese – Zeng Fanzhi, Chen Yifei, Wang Yidong, Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Xiaodong and Liu Ye.²

The development of the Chinese antiquities market, by comparison, has occurred over a longer period of time, and will be covered in Part One.

Yuanmingyuan and Repatriation of National Treasures

The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed China’s decline, when the kingdom suffered blow after blow of total humiliation wrought by the imperialist powers of Britain, Germany, France, Russia and Japan. Territories of China were carved up into concessions by the Europeans, while the internal strife between reformists and the conservative government further weakened the country, culminating in the failed Boxer Rebellion in 1900 which left China divided, unstable and in a worse state than before. The destruction of the imperial summer palace of Yuanmingyuan by foreign troops in 1860, and the resulting plunder in which cartloads of imperial treasures were removed and sent to Europe, marked a significant episode in China’s modern history. This incident is still cited in the twenty-first century, instigating animosity between east and west, and stirring up feelings of patriotism, and nowhere is this drama played out more vibrantly than on the Chinese art and antiquities market.

The Yuanmingyuan incident can be credited for a slew of patriotic art-buying that began around 2000 and the rigorous debates surrounding the issues of China’s lost cultural relics and their restitution. Among the artworks and architectural fittings which were plundered from the Yuanmingyuan in 1860 were the bronze zodiac fountainheads, of which there were originally 12, although only seven are thought to exist today (pls. 2 and 3). These seven fountainheads exchanged hands several times since their displacement, eventually ending up in private collections across Europe, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In 2000, three of the heads were offered for auction in Hong Kong, causing a furore. This anger stemmed from the reminder of that humiliating episode back in 1860 which symbolised a weak and divided China bullied by the imperialist forces of the West. To add insult to injury, the looted objects were being sold by western auction houses on Chinese soil. Although the Chinese were successful in ‘buying back’ the heads, the issues of restitution and the repatriation of China’s cultural patrimony remain a bone of contention. These various issues will be evaluated in Chapter One, together with the international restitution laws involved.

Fakes, Forgeries and Methods of Authentication

The practice of making reproductions has had a long history in China, and is the subject of numerous studies about antiquarianism (the practice of collecting and studying antiquities) and archaism (a new style based on the past).³ Not all reproductions were made with the intention to deceive. Chinese education is based on copying to perfect a skill or technique. Painting and calligraphy students have always copied their masters’ works for practice in order to then formulate their own personal style, while craftsmen imitated the quintessence of antiques as a way of paying tribute to the past. This form of emulation was honourable and not intended to mislead, as making exact replicas was not the objective. Nevertheless, forgeries were also not uncommon in China’s art history, especially during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when paintings and calligraphy by ancient masters were in high demand among art connoisseurs.

Today, art fraud is big business in China. Reproductions are commonplace, especially where an art market is thriving, but they are not illegal. There is a huge cottage industry in China churning out reproductions of every type of art, from antique pots to contemporary oil paintings. The reproductions are usually of famous artworks in museum collections or pieces which were recently sold for exceptionally high prices at high-profile auctions, but the reproduction quality is mostly poor and the pieces are sold as souvenirs or for decorative purposes only.

On the other hand, there are a few studios in China that make extremely good fakes, sometimes working with old material cobbled together to make a new piece. With increasing accessibility to technology via the internet and email, the forgers can copy pieces with greater accuracy. The forgers have various methods to make the pieces look ancient, as if freshly excavated. These include rubbing the pieces of pottery, stone sculpture, bronze ware or jade carving with chemicals, ash, banana leaves or other organic materials to dull the surface or to create a patina consistent with the ‘age’ of the forgery. Perhaps the most skilful of forgers are those copying Ming and Qing porcelain, where designs have to be precisely painted and the colours and iridescence of enamels and glazes have to match exactly the originals, while surface degradation has to be convincing.

A good fake is not just about making copies of existing pieces – of which an over-supply will render the efforts of the forger ineffective – but rather about creating something unique and beautiful in the style and spirit of the original. As Benjamin Creutzfeldt, a researcher of Chinese foreign policies and economics, noted of his meeting in Jingdezhen in 2003 with a master craftsman by the name of Li, ‘He told me how he did not faithfully copy an original, but rather adopted the understanding of a craftsman of the 18th century, the view of the world of his ancestors, the naivety of those uneducated but skilled sculptors, in order to achieve a new interpretation of the subject in the old style.’⁴ It would appear, then, that first-hand experience is no longer adequate in the study of antiquities, but an additional understanding of the methods of reproduction is essential, which is why antiquities collectors often jokingly refer to the mistakes in their collections as ‘school fees paid’, having been duped into buying a fake.

However, master craftsman Li’s insightful revelation is not entirely new. The act of emulation has been practised throughout Chinese history. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) the emperors who were Manchu by ethnicity felt the need to validate their right to rule the Han Chinese. One of the items on their agenda to prove themselves was to look back to antiquity, one of the basic principles of Confucianism. The Qianlong emperor, for instance, had hundreds of antiquities reproduced, and among them are many Song-dynasty-style vases, which themselves were copied from Shang-dynasty bronze silhouettes. He also wrote numerous poems extolling the beauty and importance of antiques.

There are a few ways to authenticate antiquities, including Thermoluminescence (TL) tests for pottery and Carbon-14 for organic materials. However, there are limitations to these scientific tests. TL tests are done by drilling for a small sample of powder from an object and testing the light signal emitted, which tells the period of time since the object was fired. This is only suitable for pottery or ceramics, and for objects from the Ming dynasty or earlier. The period range predicted by TL tests is about 500 years, so not very specific, but it can tell if a piece is very old. Counterfeiters, however, have caught on to how TL tests work, and have found ways to get a positive result out of a fake piece. Carbon dating has always been somewhat controversial because it is predicated upon a set of assumptions which may or may not have remained constant over a long period of time. Ultra-violet light, or black light,

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