“Who likes Chinese art?”

There’s this Cantonese restaurant out in Shanghai’s Putuo District where my friend G., a Shanghai school teacher, and I used to go for dinner on a semi-regular basis. It’s one of those massive places you only find in China – maybe 200 – 300 tables spread out over the entire third floor of an office building. At the far end, against the wall which hides the kitchen, is a stage, and toward the end of the dinner rush – say, around 8:00 PM – a gravelly-voiced MC with slicked-back hair and a red satin coat gets up to introduce the entertainment. It’s been a while since I was last there (and frankly I can’t say that the joint still exists), but I remember two acts, in particular: the second to last is always a traditional song-and-dance number, featuring attractive young women in their early twenties at the oldest, who danced their steps with the precision of new students. And following that, and most important (to the restaurant and its patrons), is the art auction.

I thought of that restaurant, and those art auctions, when, on Friday, the New York Times ran a very interesting and overlooked piece on the record-breaking prices paid for middling-to-poor Chinese artworks at Christie’s on September 14 and 15. According to the Times, Chinese bidders – sometimes bidding through Hong Kong dealers – bid up some work of art tens and even hundreds of times Christie’s estimates. For example, a dubious vase from the Qianglong reign, estimated at US$2000 – US$3000, sold for $550,000; other pieces went for similarly inflated values.

At the opening of the piece, the author, Souren Melikian, posits two possible explanations for these prices, first suggesting that they are an indicator of a buoyant economic mood in China, and then – with arched brow – offering this: “What is most remarkable is the part played by new bidders unfamiliar with the finer nuances of the art they are chasing and the traditional hierarchy of aesthetic values.”

Well. The Cantonese restaurant where G. and I used to dine  is the sort of place favored by middle-class families (seated on the edges) and small businesses that throw company parties for the sorts of young male employees  (mean salary, just guessing, no more than RMB 2000/month [US$292/month]) who don’t get taken out on someone else’s dime very often. As a result, they tend to over-indulge in food and – in particular – drink to such a degree that, by the time the attractive young girls finish their traditional song-and-dance, and the art auction starts, they’ve got their collective testosterone-fueled ganders up.

Then this: Two of the attractive song-and-dance girls totter onto the stage in high heels and unroll a large traditional ink painting. Nothing special – the sort of thing you can get down at the Yue gardens or other tourist traps for RMB 100 – 200 (US$14.60 – $29.20). The MC waves his hand at it, calls it a masterpiece, and asks something along the lines of “Who likes Chinese art?”

The liquored-up young men rise to their feet and holler their bids over each other, often with wallets flapping above their heads. Around RMB 500 (US$73), the bidding typically slows, but only briefly: like clockwork, bids start to arrive from the family tables at the perimeter of the restaurant. G. and I ate there enough to recognize some of the “family members” who cast those bids, and though there’s no way to prove it, we’re both pretty sure that they’re plants.

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In any case: woe be unto the poor young man who suddenly finds himself the high bidder against one of these plants! His colleagues, all as drunk as he, start to pound his back and encourage him to out-bid the interloper. By this point, the MC is asking a different question: “Who really loves Chinese art?”

Go figure: it’s always the young man with the company party who best appreciates Chinese culture, and ends up paying RMB 1000 ($146) for a painting worth a tenth of that. But, at least for a drunken moment, he has the admiration (read:face) of his colleagues. Personally, I always wonder about how much the spouses of these young men will appreciate the new acquisitions.

No doubt, the collectors who ran up the prices at the recent Christie’s auctions don’t have to explain to incensed spouses how or why they spent half a pay packet on a $300,000 vase that the experts politely call “kitsch.” But, on the other hand, I’ve no doubt that – like their lower-middle class counterparts in Shanghai’s Putuo District, they, too, feel compelled to prove how much they like Chinese art, too, to their colleagues and whomever else might have been watching.

8 comments

  1. Good one! For me the bottom line is: Cantonese businessman knows how to get to the monwy. Amazing how craftily they extract those 970RMB from the poor employee… do you think those paintings are even worth 100RMB?

  2. Yes, those guys around the edge are definitely plants. There’s a lot of shady stuff going on in China’s auction scene. I’ve heard some interesting dirt about contemporary art auctions, but this antique thing is strange. I can only think of two possible explanations:
    1- a group of bulk collectors in China is trying to start a speculation craze so they can unload their hoards of overvalued late Qing chotskies. “Look, a similar vase sold for half a million bucks at auction this year! You could make a fortune!”
    2- a group protest intended to scare people off from dealing in Chinese artifacts by making mass defaults on all these auction products. You never know…

  3. There’s also a third possibility — there are lots of rich people in China who want historical stuff to put in thier houses, and they don’t really care about the price. While no one will know for some time whether commenter #4’s possible explanations were true, what we do know is that mainland Chinese are becoming a pretty important force in the auction world as a result of their numbers, and it can’t be true that they are all unsophisticated rich rednecks just waving their wallets over their heads. That story is funny and illustrative of something you see a lot in Chinese culture, but I personally doubt there is some kind of conspiracy underfoot. I just think you’ve got a chunk of the population that wants to buy things that they felt never should’ve left China in the first place, and they want to show off to their friends by having a vase even if it is considered “kitsch.”

    If it were just Chinese buyers snapping up antiquities, not buying anything else, then I guess it would be possible that there was some kind of sketchy scheme going on. But you’ve got mainlanders buying every kind of Chinese art from antiquity to contemporary, and they’re buying pretty much everything else imaginable at auction too — no one is saying that Chinese buyers are starting a speculation craze over fine wines or watches, both of which they bought in record numbers at recent Hong Kong auctions.

  4. Adam.

    Important to keep in mind that historical artifacts are different than art, and that while the auction of artifacts are still holding up, the market for art was severely impacted (in the words of my father in law.. only the government is paying for art right now).

    … and when it comes to artifacts, one thing that should be considered is that ever since the debacle over the two pieces earlier this year, there has been a very focused attempt by some within China to purchase anything Chinese and bring it back to China.

    It is not a dynamic that would explain why someone would spend 200 times more then the listed value, but it is a contributing factor for why the market for historical Chinese items has remained steady.

    R

  5. Yan – Thanks for your very good, very fair comment. No doubt, a goodly percentage of the people buying these objects at auction are NOT the Chinese equivalent of rednecks. And yes, I agree, antiquity auctions are increasingly filled with Chinese buyers with a real patriotic desire to repatriate Chinese artworks from abroad – and that’s the sort of thing that one can’t place a market price on (the “face” derived from such purchases making such valuations even more difficult!). In general, this post was, as you put it, “illustrative of something you sometimes see in Chinese culture.” I certainly don’t sense, much less know of, a conspiracy afoot. Then again, price fixing between dealers and auction houses isn’t unknown, and I wouldn’t be surprised if – in light of the current market frenzy – some of the players wouldn’t see opportunities to run up their fees. But that’s the blogger talking, not the fact-checked journo.

    Rich – Always a pleasure to have your comments here, including the one above.

  6. Maybe they think they are patriotically repatriating Chinese “art” to the homeland? Before long the Navajo may be turning out “Chinese” art for sale to Chinese tourists. I haven’t seen any Chinese art I’d want to pay anything for.

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