The operative word in “Art Market” isn’t “Art.” I learned this many years ago, and indeed some of the more modern stuff that sells for a fortune does not seem at all marketable to me, but rich punters and fancy corporations disagree. (I prefer the taste of one Lorenzo de Medici to whole boards of bored corporate collectors.) The vagaries of the market are visible on both the American and British Antiques Road Show; in the American version, you sometimes get to see how the value has changed just in the last several years – sometimes more, sometimes less.
Part of this is due to changes in taste. When I was at the University years ago, I knew a graduate student who was buying up Victorian furniture. Now this is not something I would collect (my taste is more Chinese Ming scholar’s furniture, which of course I cannot afford), but just a few years later, I noticed that Sears was selling reproductions of Victoriana. This told me that Victorian furniture was no longer banished to the attic, and families who had not chucked it out in the early 20th century could now hope to make money, if they choose to sell.
I mentioned that I like Ming furniture “in the scholar’s taste.” This furniture is made by joining the wood together with little nailing and gluing. Unlike more ornate Chinese furniture, the scholar’s taste relies as much on the grain of huanghauli or other woods like “Chicken Wing” wood or the now-extinct zitan as it does on carvings, which are generally restrained. A piece like a sloping style cabinet has discreet moldings, but it mainly relies on the beautiful huanghauli grain of the plain door panels. The slight taper of the cabinet’s sides from top to bottom is another elegant touch.
In the early 1990s, I could have bought a Ming “Eight Immortals” square table for something under fifty grand from one of the great Chinese antique dealers, a woman with the splendid name of Grace Wu Bruce. Had I known just a few years later that the holdings of “The Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture,” actually an investment consortium, would sell its contents at auction, I might have remortgaged the house and bought it. The prices have been astronomical ever since. There were just over one hundred pieces auctioned off in 1996; the total price was an astounding $11.2 million dollars.
While Ming furniture was appreciated before, that auction indicated that there would be few bargains in the genre after the auction. (In 2003, the Guimet in Paris had a grand exhibition of Ming furniture where I think I saw my first “Drunken Lord’s Chair,” which seems to me for many reasons to be a very desirable piece of folding – and reclining furniture.)
Part of the problem is the scarcity of good, genuine Ming pieces; dating them must be based on style, the quality of the wood, and the piece’s proportions by an expert. The barbarism of the Chinese Cultural Revolution took its toll, and it is now illegal for antiques over two centuries old to be exported from China. When to my surprise, Prime Minister Thatcher returned the island of Hong Kong to the Chinese (unlike the mainland settlements, the island was not “rented” – it was a British possession), Hong Kong collectors shipped some of their collections out of the country. I recall seeing a curved Sung Dragon pendant from a great Hong Kong collection on sale at Spink and Son that was there as a direct result of the Chinese takeover. (Spink and Son, Queen Elizabeth II’s medalists, used to have one of the very oldest Oriental Departments in England, it went all the way back to the17th c. reign of Charles II. When Spink was purchased by an auction house, the tension between retailer and auctioneer was too problematic, and the Oriental Department was unfortunately closed.)
I had started to go to Spink when I was at University in England, and though I was unable to buy anything then, the staff was invariably courteous and helpful. I can remember being shown inro, the compartmentalized boxes that Japanese gentlemen hung from their sashes that were held in place by netsuke; even though I had told him I was only looking, the Spink salesman still pointed out the wear on the holes for the cords that meant it was an old lacquer inro. This was a welcome change from the attitude of the owner of a now defunct Japanese art shop near the British Museum. I asked what he thought of a tsuba or sword-hilt engraved with a tiger he was selling. I only wanted to learn more, but he dismissed me with “You can tell what I think of it by the price I put on it.” Needless to say, when I did have money to spend, I went back to Spink to make a few, very small, purchases.
Even pieces from the later Qing Dynasty, many of which are in the same elegant style as Ming scholar’s pieces, are starting to drying up. Zaar Design Center used to be a good place to pick up Qing furniture online for a couple of thousand dollars; it still has pieces left, but apparently they are getting harder to find and websites also sell reproduction Chinese furniture.
Another reason that Chinese furniture, jades, porcelains, and objets d’art are more expensive is that the Chinese have been buying back their own antiques. This means that prices for Chinese antiques is now greater than when I window-shopped at Spink. A few years ago, a zitan throne belonging to the Qianlong Emperor was sold for over $11 million dollars to a Chinese businessman, almost four times the expected price. It would have fitted very nicely in my sitting room.