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.

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