A new cultural revolution as China sees art boom

The new rich in China are spending fortunes on instant art collections, sending prices soaring and buying up work that was sold abroad. <i><b>Jasper Becker </b></i>reports from Beijing
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The Independent Online

It is the great Chinese takeaway. In a frenzied buying spree that is fuelling an art boom, the country's attics are being emptied by dealers anxious to feed the insatiable appetites of China's rapidly growing class of brash tycoons.

It is the great Chinese takeaway. In a frenzied buying spree that is fuelling an art boom, the country's attics are being emptied by dealers anxious to feed the insatiable appetites of China's rapidly growing class of brash tycoons.

Awakening at last to their own cultural heritage, which was sold off to the West at knock-down prices at the turn of the century, the new rich are reversing that trend and are bringing the art works home.

Former peasant farmers, who now wear diamond-studded gold watches, are investing in private museums to put their new-found works on display. They are creating instant collections of fine art in a trend which, in turn, is driving up prices in New York or London. Auctions which in London would attract no more than 50 people, now draw crowds of 500 in Beijing, some of them coming just to look.

But there is a drawback - in their quest to satisfy their customers, some dealers are also scooping up the many forgeries on the market and can easily hoodwink the inexperienced collector. "Dealers are on the road all the time combing the grounds house by house, village by village, but quality antiques are simply not to be found in quantity any more. Those that were regarded totally unsaleable are now bought for good prices," says Dick Wang, a dealer who owns a gallery in Liulichang, Beijing's traditional art market.

Antiques markets like Beijing's Panjiayuan are bustling but mostly full of artfully forged paintings, porcelain and bronzes whose provenance cannot be properly documented.

"It is really quite amazing. Ten years ago nobody wanted this stuff, now look," said a top dealer, Wang Yannan, the daughter of the imprisoned pro- reform former Communist leader Zhao Ziyang, as the bidding ratcheted upwards. A greeting card style painting of a tabby cat by Xu Beihong, one of China's best known painters from the early 20th century, sold for £20,000, or ten times the expected price.

The buyers are ordinary people: Xu Qiming, a peasant from Ningbo who made a fortune breeding eels, or Lu Hanzhen, another nouveau riche from Zhejiang province who made it big selling motorcycles and the nylon fabric used in car tyres.

When Ms Wang founded her business 10 years ago, the private antiques trade was still very much a furtive underground activity in China. Officially the buying and selling of Chinese art was monopolised by the state. In effect, that meant that the Ministry of Foreign Trade exported works of art by the ton to earn foreign currency that was spent on importing steel and cement.

For half a century the Chinese Communist Party had confiscated, destroyed or exported what was left of China's vast cultural heritage. When the Cultural Revolution was over, the state invited foreign dealers to visit the vast warehouses stacked full of confiscated works of art and buy in bulk in what some termed the world's biggest fire sale.

By the start of the 1990s, China was cleaned out and the only source of new objects to trade came from people who raided tombs or stole relics from museum warehouses and most of this was then sold overseas. As a result, the best and biggest collections of Chinese art are now outside China. In London, this means visiting Sir David Percival's collection of ceramics, the British Museum's vast store of nearly everything or the T T Tsui Gallery of Chinese Art in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The exodus of the art works started with the collapse of the Qing empire in 1911 and in the modernisation drive that followed, when the Chinese happily sold off anything and everything at rock bottom prices. Some of it was snapped up by the great American business dynasties such as the Rockefellers or the Gettys. In the 1930s, William Rockhill Nelson, founder of the Kansas City Star, built up one of the finest collections, now housed in a museum in Kansas for just $11m (£6m).

Another American tycoon, the railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit, Charles Lang Freer, created a collection so big it is now spread between four museums and is famous for its Zhou dynasty bronzes.

Another famous collector was the Jewish doctor and medical publisher from New York City, Arthur M Sackler, whose collection is housed in the Smithsonian Institute, Harvard University and Beijing University. Eli Lilly, the founder of the huge American pharmaceutical company, built up another impressive collection.

But these days it is the turn of the Chinese entrepreneurs, who are beginning to build up their own museums at home. Mr Xu, the eel tycoon, is presently negotiating with the Ningbo government to put his collection on public display in a recreated Ming Dynasty-style palace. Mr Xu, 45, has assembled around 200 pieces valued at around £12m, which are housed in his private museum in the grounds of his factory.

Such private museums are sprouting up all over China. Chen Lihua, one of China's richest women and chairman of real estate company, Fu Wah International Group, has built a four-storey museum to house her collection of furniture. Beijing property developer, Beijing Huaye Real Estate, plans to open another, specialising in ceramics, and Fu Shuntao, a property magnate in Chengdu, has opened a museum featuring bronzes.

"In the past two or three years, Chinese art prices have really shot up. Prices here are now higher than in New York or London so the art is coming here, " said Ms Wang.

The Beijing gallery owner, Mr Wang (no relation), says it is not only the rich and wealthy who feel they should possess part of their own heritage. "A huge number of grass-roots level beginners have sprung up from all over the country to digest the vast quantity of lower quality paintings, ceramics and other works of art," he said.

Some commentators compare China's art boom with that of Japan's when it became a global economic power more than 30 years ago. In the same way that Japan's rich wanted to diversify out of the inflated asset bubble, these days China's new rich are also anxiously trying to find a save haven for their money. At the height of Japan's bubble economy in the 1980s, the Japanese went on a buying spree - but they largely went after Western art. Now it's the turn of the Chinese to buy up big, butthey seem mostly interested in their own culture and are particularly drawn to paintings from the first half of the 20th century: painters such as Xu Beihong, Qi Baishi, Fu Baoshi or Zhang Daqian. They chose easy to understand subjects: galloping horses, soaring eagles, crabs, fish and shrimps - or they painted water and mountain landscapes, mixing Western use of perspective and Chinese brush techniques. Some were inspired to paint Chinese sages or Tang dynasty maidens in diaphanous robes and went to study the 1,300 year old wall paintings in the Dunhuang Caves in western China.

In the 1960s and 1970s the Chinese authorities sold off these paintings for a song to selected Western dealers in order to earn dollars. They even employed art students to make forgeries in the same style. The famous American oriental dealer Robert Ellsworth said most people considered this art as worthless as "toilet paper". Now his collection of modern Chinese painting hangs in a special gallery in New York's Metropolitan Museum.

At China Guardian Auction's autumn sale in Beijing last week, buyers splashed out millions of dollars on 1970s paintings which came on the market from two private collections in Singapore. One of these paintings, of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, which was listed for $1,200 sold for $124,000.

"People also like oil paintings, old rare books and the serious collectors are putting in a lot of study to understand traditional calligraphy and art," said Miss Wang.

China's new rich are either former peasants like Mr Xu, or technocrats who studied engineering or electronics and find it hard to grasp traditional Chinese culture. They tend to turn up at auctions wearing leather jackets or ill-fitting suits and are a far cry from the refined scholar-officials of the past. These Confucian literati had spent years practising calligraphy, composition and painting to qualify for the civil service exams. Without such a background it is not easy to become a connoisseur.

Ironically, the founding fathers of China's Communist Revolution often had a more traditional education. All the leading figures of the Cultural Revolution, like Marshal Lin Biao and Chairman Mao's wife Jiang Qing, each acquired thousands of pieces. Chen Boda, one of the top theorists behind the Cultural Revolution was another avid collector. So was Kang Sheng, mastermind of Mao's brutal purges. He chose to live in one of the most beautiful Manchu palaces where he could sit contemplating the beauty of his collection of seals, carvings made of precious stone or metals.

Yet such men organised the planned destruction of China's and Tibet's cultural heritage as part of China's modernisation program. In 1956 and 1958, officials from the Cultural Relics Bureau officials made inventories of what buildings, temples, paintings, bronzes and textiles would be spared the coming cultural holocaust. They also went to the homes of noted collectors and demanded that they voluntarily donate their possessions to the state - invariably the terrified owners complied.

People dragged out their old furniture and burnt it in their courtyard. "Furniture was worth nothing in those days. People had to get rid of their old furniture but I thought it a pity to see so much destroyed. Every time I could, I would bicycle to the countryside and go to well-known families to see their pieces. If I could afford it, I would buy them," said Wang Shixiang, one of Beijing's great collectors. At an auction last year of furniture and other objects that Wang had collected, a single bamboo carving sold for $1m.

The effort was resumed with even more vigour during the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards made house-to-house searches. Not everything that the Red Guards seized was instantly destroyed. Anything that looked valuable was taken away, often after an official receipt was issued. It was taken and stored in vast warehouses on the outskirts of Beijing where it was sorted and slowly sold off. In the 1980s China was exporting a million snuff bottles a year.

Some of these art treasures were made available in "Friendship Stores" which existed in major cities where foreign visitors could buy goods for hard currency. At the time, any Chinese with any art expertise was either dead or working in the countryside.

Senior party officials could go to a special Wenwu Shangdian (cultural relics shop), be taken to a back room and asked to choose what they wanted from a special selection of stolen antiques. One those who acquired a collection was Deng Tuo, a prominent Communist and writer who was eventually killed during the Cultural Revolution for criticising Mao's policies during the Great Leap Forward.

Four years ago the Chinese government set about trying to reverse this wholesale pillaging of China's cultural and artistic heritage by setting up a taskforce with the specific purpose of recovering more than a million "looted" Chinese cultural relics it claims are stashed away in more than 200 museums in 47 countries.

The People's Daily quoted one adviser to the Cultural Relic's Bureau, Xie Chensheng, saying that: "Most were either stolen by invading nations, stolen by foreigners or purchased by foreigners at extremely low prices from Chinese warlords and smuggled abroad". Four years ago, placard-waving protesters tried to halt auctions of Chinese art being held in Hong Kong by Christies and Sotheby's. The depth of feeling was illustrated by one man who forced his way into the auction, shouting, "Stop selling looted goods. Return them to the motherland."

The official government campaign to return China's lost heritage has died down, but after a century the outflow is finally being reversed thanks largely to the rise of the bourgeoisie.

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