As an antique-dealer’s son, I have long been used to the world where loveable rogues wheel and deal over flintlock pistols and meerschaum pipes, and occasionally solve crimes and/or bed baronesses. Everything you see in Lovejoy is true; just ask my Dad, but stand well back when you do. My Dad, meanwhile, as the father of an oriental linguist, has gained a new-found second-hand ability to make sense of Chinese in later life, and whenever I drop by his stall at Portobello Road, I am beset with exhortations to date Kangxi pottery or read the inscriptions on opium scales.
Audrey Wang takes such larks to new levels in Chinese Antiquities: An Introduction to the Art Market, published by Lund Humphries in association with Sotheby’s, in which she outlines the state, scandals and securities of the modern trade in Chinese artifacts. The assistant director of Sotheby’s course on the Art Business, Wang is predictably good on the antiques market as a form of bank, where investors seek to stash their money by crystallising it in bronzes and watercolours. Although, of course, the value of investments can go up as well as down, as the British Rail pension fund discovered when it backed Ming vases just before their value slumped.
She has lots to say about the spats in the art world over the right of modern owners to sell pieces pilfered from China. There is some space, for example, devoted to the infamous 12 bronze animal heads from a baroque fountain at the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanmingyuan), which are about as “Chinese” as Beyoncé, and were in fact once ordered removed by a Manchu princess who thought that they were ghastly. It is, Wang notes, ironic that pieces so untypical of Chinese culture should have come to become so symbolic of it. As noted elsewhere, not the least in a knockabout action movie starring Jackie Chan, the loss and recovery of these bronzes has become emblematic of China’s “Century of Humiliation,” and its long marathon back to international primacy.
I’ve long been aware of the army of Chinese agents who scour the world in search of antiquities to repatriate. But as an auction-house insider, Wang has a particular antipathy for the rarely mentioned gazumpers, who place winning bids on big-name artefacts, and then refuse to pay out of some sense of national revenge. Such actions consign antiquities to an unsold limbo, with auction houses pursuing their seller’s fee on a sum now redefined as £0, and sellers unable to off-load their property because its ownership is now a multi-faceted legal tangle.
Wang is not afraid to point out the elephant in the room, which is that some of the most prolific thieves and fences of Chinese antiques have always been other Chinese people. She observes, for example, that in 1913 “the imperial family offered to sell the imperial collection in its entirety to the American industrialist JP Morgan for $4 million,” but the trade was halted by his death. Had it gone through, presumably the Forbidden City would have been left entirely empty, and would have been turned into a Mao-era car park. In 1924, after the imperial family was pushed out of the Forbidden City, a suspicious number of antique dealerships opened up in Qianmen, “flooding the market with imperial artworks that had been secretly appropriated over the years.” There is, in fact, an entire 1926 volume, used as a sort of I-Spy book by Chinese collectors, called The Catalogue of Books, Calligraphy, and Paintings Lost from the Palace Collection, which continues to remind us how much has been removed. One of my favourite books of recent years, Who Collects the Yuanmingyuan?, attempts in a beautifully post-modern way to reassemble the Garden of Perfect Brightness by tracking down its extant fragments, built into other buildings, adorning swimming pools in Los Angeles, or gracing a French hotel lobby. Wang’s book deals with such issues deftly and dispassionately, while opening a window on the hard-nosed business world where ancient bronzes are used as storage devices for modern capital.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China.