Former donators need help

The name of Liao Jingwen should be written down in the art history, not merely in a blog.

The widow of Xu Beihong (1895-1953) donated all the other 1,250 works of arguably the most famous 20th-century Chinese artist and the 1,100 cultural relics in Xu’s collection to the central government after the artist’s death in 1953.

But in 2005, she had to sell the only two works of the artist in her possession in the coming week in an attempt to sustain the Xu Beihong Memorial Museum. Eighty-one-year-old Liao Jingwen Liao suffers from severe diabetes and was in a critical financial situation.

The “Horse Album” and the “Album of Sketches on Calcutta” were auctioned by the China Sungari International Auction Co Ltd.

Liao is a prime example of those collectors donated their art collections to national collections in the 1950s. Those still alive are all very old. Most are suffering from financial difficulties.



Rongbaozhai in the Liulichang Street

Established more than 300 years ago, the Beijing-based art dealer was first known as “Songzhuzhai” (House of Pines and Bamboo). It changed its name to “Rongbaozhai” (House of Glory and Treasures) 110 years ago when it opened a shop at Liulichang Antique Street in Beijing, which still stands at the site.

Rongbaozhai’s collection has been nicknamed the “Small Forbidden City” among Chinese collectors.

The collection allegedly houses a large number of traditional paintings and calligraphy that have been accumulated over the past two centuries.

Between the 1950s and 1980s, Rongbaozhai was one of the three most important art dealers in China, the other two being Duoyunxuan in Shanghai and Shizhuzhai in Nanjing. Only very few similiar art dealers continued business after becoming State-owned in the 1950s. Modern and contemporary Chinese art, even those by masters, were priced as craftworks then.

Artworks were very inexpensive when Rongbaozhai bought them, as the shop was one of the few places where artists and collectors could turn art into the money they badly needed.

“We sold many of them in the early 1980s at very low prices, in return for the precious foreign exchange. It was a labour to sell art at the time – I hung a dozen paintings onto the wall when exhibiting for a visiting foreigner, and he would often say: ‘I want them all.’ So I got them off the wall and hung another dozen,” Liu Shangyong, general manager of Rongbao Auction House, an affilate of Rongbaizhai, told me.

Liulichang — the antique street



Liulichang was the site of a colored-glaze kiln in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The antique market didn’t come into being until the middle of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) when the kiln was moved. 


Strolling along the market, you will find ancient Chinese style buildings housing paintings, calligraphy, old coins, seals, jade and collectible stamps. The first few large stores are state-run authentic antique stores whose prices run from several thousand yuan to as high as a million per item. Those at the far ends of the market are private stores selling tea pots, painting paper, painting brushes, mostly non-antique Chinese art work and similar, attractively-priced items.


Check out the many famous “brand name” shops such as Rongbaozhai, Qingmige, and Haiwangcun, where you may find exquisite calligraphy and paintings. China Bookshop offers you material on Chinese arts and crafts. Chinese paper-cuts, postcards and picture albums in the bookshop would also make unique and easy-to-carry souvenirs of your China tour.


Contemporary art suffers most





Beijing Huachen Auctions, one of the largest art auction houses in China, canceled all its contemporary art sales at the fall auction on November 20. At its website the company’s general manager Gan Xuejun called it a “cautious but necessary” measure amid the economy turmoil.


Three weeks ago the China Guardian Art Auction Co Ltd, which is the oldest and arguably the largest art auction house in the Chinese mainland, suffered from a significant slump in its contemporary art sales. Only half of the lots were sold and the highest price among them was only 2.97 million yuan (for Wang Qidong’s A White Cloud), while at the spring auction it had been 57 million yuan (for Liu Xiaodong’s Hot Bed No.1).


In October, Sotheby’s fall auction in Hong Kong also proceeded only with half its contemporary art lots.


The slump at the major auction houses seems to mark the end of a four-year boom in Chinese contemporary art, a golden age for artists like Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi.




Let’s face the music


Can China’s contemporary art market survive and even thrive in the global financial crisis? Yes it can, but its probability of thriving is not great.


The number and scale of art exhibitions in the coming years might shrink dramatically as people in the art world anticipate a gloomy economic situation in the near future. The streamlined market as necessarily a bad thing, though. People will use their money more rationally, and put more care into less famous artists whose works are not as expensive as those of Zhang Xiaogang or Xu Bing.


A slump in the art market is unavoidable. We must be prepared for chilly winter days ahead. And let’s face the music.




Post-Olympic interest


e58898e5b08fe4b89c1The world market has had a strong interest for Chinese arts since the beginning of the new century, but is it still there after the 2008 Olympics? Many insiders doubt it. They are talking about an ominous sign at the recent rounds of autumn sales – Indian contemporary art is getting hot.

Arguably the best-selling Indian artist now is Raqib Shaw. When his oil painting “Garden of Earthly Delights III” sold for 2.7 million pounds at the Sotheby’s last October, nearly everybody at site looked around and asked: “who is this Raqib Shaw?” His name was little heard of before.

Sales of Indian and Pakistan arts are also picking up in Hong Kong. At the Christie’s sale of contemporary Asian art on the island last November, 22 works from the subcontinent sold for a combined total of more than HK$30.3 million, the highest aggregate price for the category ever reached in Hong Kong.

Differences between Chinese and European buyers

0268-e590b4e6988ce7a195-e5af8ce8b4b5e59bbe2Chinese collectors are much younger than their European counterparts, and spend heavily on young artists and calligraphers. The main buyers of art in China are those aged between 30 and 45, who have succeeded in the financial sector or in real estate. Many of them speculate in art just as they do in bonds or apartments.

But according to a friend who is an important art dealer in Europe, not many buyers are young there. ” People have to get married, to have children, to throw the children out of their houses, and then they have the money and start to buy, and they still need time to learn about art and antiques. The process is long,” he said.

“That’s why I have to say that the youngest buyers are 40 to 45, and the majority are quite old. Sometimes, of very modern art, the buyers are younger but not much. It is the money problem – people just don’t have the money to buy it until they are old enough.”