Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Treasures Reclaimed: The Economist Reports on Chinese Repatriaton Efforts

The Economist Magazine has reported on China's efforts to repatriate art from abroad. See http://www.economist.com/specialreports/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14941165

As the Magazine notes, far more Chinese artifacts are now being repatriated from abroad than are leaving China:

Collecting Chinese fine art and ceramics was all the rage in the West in the second half of the 19th and the early 20th century. Heavy buying by treasure-hunters, as well as looting of imperial works by the Germans, Dutch, French and British, brought huge quantities of Chinese fine art into Western collections. But in the past decade the number of European and American buyers has dwindled.


From 1949, when the Communist Party defeated the Nationalists, and especially during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966, owning, inheriting or exchanging pre-communist works of art was banned in China. Thanks to shifts in policy that started under Deng Xiaoping and continued after him, the Chinese are now catching up in a big way, following on from the Japanese buyers who dominated the market in the 1970s and the Taiwanese and Hong Kong collectors who started buying seriously in the 1990s.

The mainland Chinese are beginning to dominate the salerooms. Prevented for so long from celebrating the achievements of their forebears, they have a thirst for their own history, and especially for anything that connects modern China with the glories of its imperial past. The newly wealthy-such as Xu Qiming, China's biggest exporter of eels from the port city of Ningbo; Lu Hanzhen, an industrialist from Zhejiang province who became rich by selling motorcycles and nylon fabric for car tyres; or indeed any businessman or civil servant who benefited from the recent flurry of privatisations-can afford to pay, and pay they will.

Nor are these buyers to be found only in the old political and commercial strongholds of Beijing and Shanghai. There are probably seven Chinese cities with populations of more than 5m, and demand for fine art is as strong in Guangdong, adjacent to Hong Kong, as it is in Sichuan in the west or in more far-flung areas. “It's what I call 'natural repatriation',” says Patti Wong, who as chairman of Sotheby's Asia has been watching the Chinese buying wave grow for a decade, "and it is happening everywhere."

Having made their money quickly, Chinese buyers are in a hurry to build their collections fast and are willing to pay a premium to achieve that. “Arriving at the buffet party a little too late,” says Mr Chow, "they are more aggressive than Europeans or Americans." Even though economic growth in China this year may be only 8%, after 9% last year, it is still far higher than in most of the rest of the world. China may be one of the few places where the number of dollar billionaires has actually increased in the past year, from 101 to 130, according to the recently published Hurun Rich List.


Dealers and auctioneers familiar with the Chinese market estimate that there are around 150 collectors in Hong Kong and Taiwan who spend at least $1m a year each on Chinese works of art, and that their number is relatively stable. The mainland has another 150 or so buyers in that category, and the numbers there are growing rapidly. More Chinese treasures are now sold at auction in Hong Kong than in New York, London and Paris. Whereas back in 2004 Sotheby's did $10m-worth of business with 70 clients from the mainland in its spring and autumn sales in Hong Kong, the figure for the same sales this year is seven times higher and its list of mainland Chinese buyers has grown to 195. Many more bid through established dealers in Hong Kong. “Mainland China has clearly become our main land,” says Kevin Ching, chief executive of Sotheby's Asia.


In 1886 Paul Durand-Ruel, a Paris dealer, packed his bags with 300 Impressionist paintings-including piles of Renoirs, Pissarros and Sisleys-to take to America. He was closely followed by a Briton, Joseph (later Lord) Duveen, who could see, like Durand-Ruel, that “Europe had the art and America had the money.”

Just as European Old Master and Impressionist paintings then began to move inexorably westwards across the Atlantic, now Chinese fine art and ceramics from America, Britain, France and the Netherlands are moving eastwards back to China. Not since the heyday of Duveen's and Durand-Ruel's exports to America has there been such vigorous redirecting of cultural artefacts from one part of the world to another as European and American collections are broken up and sold off to the newly wealthy Chinese. The traffic is almost all one way.

And that is not all. In addition to "repatriation by purchase," China is also aggressively pressing for ever more extensive legal restrictions on the trade of ancient Chinese artifacts abroad:

In addition, China has become increasingly vocal about restricting the trade in its treasures. After nearly five years of negotiation the Bush administration in its final days at last agreed to prohibit the import of a wide range of antiquities into America. The agreement was not as strong as China would have liked, and in recent weeks its government has said that it will tighten up on the movement of cultural relics out of the country. Its plan is to ban the export of anything made before 1911, the end of the Qing dynasty. No matter that China is now a member of the World Trade Organisation, it still seems to be uncomfortable with free trade-except when it suits it.

After all reading this, one wonders if the archaeologists that spoke so eloquently on behalf of China's request for import restrictions before CPAC should feel duped. Were the restrictions really about "protecting the archaeological record" as they claimed, or are they in fact designed to help ensure that ancient Chinese art stays out of the hands of "foreigners," and, in particular, American citizens? And further in this regard, given the prospect for even more extensive Chinese export controls, what of China's promise under the MOU that

The Government of the People’s Republic of China shall continue to license the sale and export of certain antiquities as provided by law and will explore ways to make more of these objects available licitly.

See http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2009/01/dos-press-release-china-mou-new-york.html

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