Chinese Antiquities: An Introduction to the Art Market

Book Review by Eric J. Hoffman


   Audrey Wang. 175 pp + 16 pp of 31 color plates; figs. Cloth, gilt, color illus. d.j. 10 x 7”. London: Lund Humphries (in association with Sotheby’s Inst. of Art), 2012. $60.


   Chinese antiquities used to occupy a quietly obscure corner of the worldwide arts market. That changed dramatically in 2005 when a rare mid-14th-century blue and white jar sold for a record $27.7 million. Since then prices for Chinese art objects have shot through the roof, with new multi-million dollar records being set almost weekly. In 2010 China became the second-largest economy in the art world as well as second place in the number of billionaires (the United States is first in both categories). Newly minted Chinese millionaires have emerged as major arts buyers, shifting the market’s economic center from West to East. Aside from aesthetic appeal, Chinese collectors buy for prestige, to display wealth, for investment, or for patriotic reasons. Audrey Wang’s book examines these important developments.

   The author comes from a background at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, including a period as associate director for the Art Business Course at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Singapore. Her book takes a broad, scholarly, and professional approach. Instructive anecdotal examples from major dealers and museums are backed up with copious data from sales and auction records, clearly presented in charts and tables. 

   The book is divided into three sections: one focuses on the “geopolitical background,” a second outlines the Chinese art market sectors, and the third discusses the market’s structure and players. The first section presents the historical context, including a brief history of the Chinese art trade going all the way back to the Han dynasty, 2000 years ago. But the discussion focuses on the stunning humiliation China experienced from the infamous Yuanmingyuan (Imperial Summer Palace) incident of 1860, when foreign troops plundered cartloads of Imperial Chinese treasures and shipped them off to Europe. It is believed that roughly 1.5 million artworks were stolen from the Yuanmingyuan. This traumatic event (and the similar Boxer Rebellion lootings of 1900) explains much of China’s intense desire to repatriate “lost” art treasures scattered around the world. Beginning in 2000 a substantial amount of “patriotic art buying” began, both directly by the Chinese government and as a result of appeals to the patriotism of wealthy Chinese buyers at home and abroad.

   The book’s second section includes capsule descriptions of the various Chinese arts categories. The distinction between fine art and decorative art is explained, as is the difference between “high end” and “low end” and what makes them so. The author also examines the differing tastes of Chinese and Western buyers. Two chapters on decorative works of art are extremely broad, covering archaic bronzes, jade, lacquer, silk and textiles, scholar’s objects, ivory, ceramics, seals, cloisonné, Qing dynasty glass, and more. Her chapter on painting and calligraphy is especially thorough—almost a book within a book.

   The third section examines the museums, collectors, dealers, and auction houses that make up the art market today. The author describes the prominent role of the state-run Poly Culture Group in locating and repatriating lost Chinese art treasures. And mention is made of buyers trawling the smaller provincial auction houses in Europe and America in search of “sleepers.”

   Several current problem areas are touched upon. The subject of fakes and forgeries is revisited several times, with the author stating flatly that “Today art fraud is big business in China.” The danger of under-appraising is illustrated with two examples. In one case a Chinese vase was bought and resold for more than 1200 times the auction house’s high estimate; that led to a lawsuit and an out-of-court settlement. Other problems include the sheer deficit of supply versus demand and the sabotaging of auction sales by defaulting Chinese buyers.

   This book is very well researched and is fascinating to read. The writing is exceptionally clear—even elegant—with hints of British English. There are 31 color illustrations, though this is not meant to be an “appreciation” book. It includes an extensive bibliography, several pages of footnotes, an index, and appendices of museums and dealers specializing in Chinese arts. Anyone involved today in collecting, buying, selling, or appraising Chinese arts and antiquities will find this book well worth reading.


Copyright © 2013 by Eric J. Hoffman (Home Page)

Originally published in ASJRA Newsletter, September 2013