Chinese antiques

How China can reclaim its lost cultural heritage — South China Morning Post commentary

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I had the kind of childhood I wish more Chinese children could have. I grew up surrounded by exquisite artworks from China’s long and dazzling history. I can still remember as a child holding a Qing dynasty jade vase in my small hands. Cool to the touch even on a hot summer day, the vase was deeply incised with lotus blossoms.

My early encounters with Chinese antiques took place not in China but in my grandfather’s house in New York City. He was a successful businessman and developed a passion for Qing and Ming dynasty jade. I inherited his fondness for Chinese culture and art. In my office today in Shenzhen, eight jade pieces from my grandfather’s collection are displayed.

Chinese antiques – jade carvings, imperial porcelains, paintings, Buddhist sculptures – are all deeply familiar to me. I have lived around them my whole life. This, sadly, is an experience too few Chinese in the People’s Republic will share. It’s not only that private collections are rare. While China has been on a museum-building spree this past decade, only a few of the country’s 3,500 museums have strong and extensive collections. Beijing’s Forbidden City Palace Museum does have some outstanding works of art. Most, though, are newly-built Xanadus with a limited display of works that would never make it into the collection of a minor provincial museum in Europe.

Chinese children grow up with too few opportunities to see up close the beautiful objects made by their ancestors. This should change

This is not only a problem but an unnecessary blemish, especially now that China has the money and global clout to do something about this. Chinese children grow up with too few opportunities to see up close, especially in smaller and less-crowded settings than the Forbidden City, the beautiful objects made by their ancestors. This should change.

In the recent past, the Chinese government has made promises to bring more artistic masterworks back to the country where they were made. But this has mainly involved an occasional effort to halt auction houses from selling objects looted in 1860 from the Summer Palace in Beijing. The result is any object that can be traced back to the Summer Palace is now bought and sold privately, not at auction.

China should continue to try to right this historic wrong. But, in the meantime, something else can be done. China’s government should be out in the international auction market buying Chinese art treasures on behalf of the nation and then distribute these works among museums across the country. The goal: in coming years, every child in China will have frequent opportunities, as I had, to admire, study and be inspired by Chinese art.

The range of Chinese artistic genius is probably more vast than any other civilisation, from Zhou dynasty bronzes cast 3,000 years ago, to Qin, Han and Tang terracotta objects, to fine Song ceramics along with Ming and Qing imperial porcelains, austere huanghuali furniture, florid cloisonné, Buddhist sculptures from the Sui dynasty, Song and Ming paintings, jade objects from Neolithic times all the way through to the 20th century.

Tragically, many of the valuable works of art that remained in China after 1949 were burned or smashed to pieces during the Cultural Revolution, an even more thoroughgoing artistic annihilation than we’ve witnessed recently from Islamic State and the Taliban. As a result, most of the world’s most valuable Chinese art is now outside the People’s Republic, in museums and private collections. It’s said that there are over 17 million Chinese antiques in the US and Europe alone. It’s time more of them made their way back to China and into public collections. Restitution, either voluntary or through international law, is not really an option. Few works other than those from the Summer Palace have a clear provenance showing they were illegally looted.

My humble proposal: the Chinese government could start and manage a national heritage fund to purchase for the nation items of cultural and artistic importance. It would accept cash donations from philanthropic Chinese at home and abroad. At the same time, I’d suggest that every state-owned enterprise voluntarily pay an annual dividend of 0.5 per cent of its profits every year into this national heritage fund. Last year, that tiny dividend would have brought in close to US$2 billion. Chinese private sector companies should be encouraged to match or exceed this pledge. I’m confident many would.

Every year, about US$7 billion worth of Chinese antiques are sold at auction houses in mainland China, Hong Kong, London and New York. Virtually every object sold at the six major Christie’s and Sotheby’s China antiques auctions each year is better than what’s on view now in most Chinese museums.

A Chinese national heritage fund would be a big departure for the government. At the moment, about the closest thing it has is a national lottery. The money is meant to go to support sports and the underprivileged, but where it goes is often hard to trace. A report last year by the National Audit Office suggested that billions of renminbi were misappropriated and bribery rampant.

An art fund, especially if it raised money from public donations, would need to be transparently and professionally managed. Corruption is only one problem. The fund would also need to buy without igniting a big run-up in prices. The Getty Collection in Los Angeles faced a similar problem. It set out to acquire valuable art, and has had more than enough money to do so. It goes to great lengths to buy in ways that don’t cause a huge spike that would price everyone else out of the market.

Wealthy Chinese are now active buyers of Chinese antiques at global auctions. Their impact is already felt worldwide. But Chinese plutocrats in general don’t donate to Chinese museums. They keep everything under their own lock and key. Trust of civic institutions doesn’t run deep. Indeed, when I mention to Chinese friends I intend to leave my grandfather’s collection to a museum in China, they often shake their heads disapprovingly. Art objects have been stolen from the Forbidden City. A Guangzhou museum curator was caught selling genuine objects for millions of dollars and replacing them with fakes.

Building museums has proved easier in China than populating them with museum-quality treasures. The sad result is it’s easier for school kids in Kansas City to see Song dynasty celadons than at the art museum in Hangzhou (杭州), the major city closest to where these luminous ceramics were made 800 years ago.

In the last five-year plan, it was stated that Chinese culture is the “spirit and soul of the nation” and a powerful force for the country’s development. It is a noble sentiment. Art is certainly among the most profound expressions of China’s soul and genius. It needs to become more of a living and familiar part in every Chinese child’s life.

Peter Fuhrman is chairman and CEO of China First Capital

http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1999199/how-china-can-reclaim-its-lost-cultural-heritage

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Song Dynasty Deal-Sourcing

I get asked occasionally by private equity firm guys how CFC gets such stellar clients. At least in one case, the answer is carved fish, or more accurately my ability quickly to identify the two murky objects (similar to the ones above) carved into the bottom of a ceramic dish. It also helped that I could identify where the dish was made and when.

From that flowed a contract to represent as exclusive investment bankers China’s largest and most valuable private GPS equipment company in a USD$30mn fund-raising. It’s in every sense a dream client. They are the most technologically adept in the domestic industry, with a deep strategic partnership with Microsoft, along with highly-efficient and high-quality manufacturing base in South China, high growth and very strong prospects as GPS sales begin to boom in China.

Since we started our work about two months ago, several big-time PE firms have practically fallen over themselves to invest in the company. It looks likely to be one of the fastest, smoothest and most enjoyable deals I’ve worked on.

No fish, no deal. I’m convinced of this. If I hadn’t correctly identified the carved fish, as well as the fact the dish was made in a kiln in the town of Longquan in Zhejiang Province during the Song Dynasty, this company would not have become our client. The first time I met the company’s founder and owner, he got up in the middle of our meeting, left the room and came back a few minutes later with a fine looking pale wooden box. He untied the cord, opened the cover and allowed me to lift out the dish.

I’d never seen it before, but still it was about as familiar as the face of an old teacher. Double fish carved into a blue-tinted celadon dish. The dish’s heavy coated clear glaze reflected the office lights back into my eyes. The fish are as sketchily carved as the pair in the picture here (from a similar dish sold at Sothebys in New York earlier this year), more an expressionist rendering than a precisely incised sculpture.

It’s something of a wonder the fish can be discerned at all. The potter needed to carve fast, in wet slippery clay that was far from an ideal medium to sink a knife into. Next came all that transparent glaze and then the dish had to get quickly into a kiln rich in carbon gas. The amount of carbon, the thickness and composition of the glaze, the minerals dissolved in the clay – all or any of these could have contributed to the slightly blue-ish tint, a slight chromatic shift from the more familiar green celadons of the Song Dynasty.

All that I knew and shared with the company’s boss, along with remarking the dish was “真了不起”, or truly exceptional. It’s the finest celadon piece I’ve seen in China. Few remain. The best surviving examples of Song celadon are in museums and private collection outside China. I’m not lucky enough to own any. But, I’ve handled dozens of Song celadons over the years, at auction previews of Chinese ceramic sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London and New York. The GPS company boss had bought this one from an esteemed collector and dealer in Japan.

The boss and I are kindred spirits.  He and I both adore and collect Chinese antiques. His collection is of a quality and breadth that I never imagined existed still in China. Most antiques of any quality or value in China sadly were destroyed or lost during the turbulent 20th century, particularly during the Cultural Revolution.

The GPS company boss began doing business in Japan ten years ago, and built his collection slowly by buying beautiful objects there, and bringing them home to China. Of course, the reason Chinese antiques ended up in Japan is also often sad to consider. They were often part of the plunder taken by Japanese soldiers during the fourteen brutal years from 1931 to 1945 when they invaded, occupied and ravaged parts of China.

Along with the celadon dish, the GPS boss has beautiful Liao, Song, Ming and Qing Dynasty porcelains, wood and stone carvings and a set of Song Dynasty paintings of Buddhist Luohan. In the last few months, I’ve spent about 20 hours at the GPS company’s headquarters. At least three-quarters of that time, including a visit this past week, was spent with the boss, in his private office, handling and admiring his antiques, and drinking fine green tea grown on a small personal plantation he owns on Huangshan.

I’ve barely talked business with him. When I tried this past week to discuss which PE firms have offered him money, he showed scant interest. If I have questions about the company, I talk to the CFO. Early on, the boss gifted me a pretty Chinese calligraphy scroll. I reciprocated with an old piece of British Wedgwood, decorated in an ersatz Chinese style.

Deal-sourcing is both the most crucial, as well as the most haphazard aspect of investment banking work. Each of CFC’s clients has come via a different route, a different process – some are introduced, others we go out and find or come to us by word-of-mouth.  Unlike other investment banking guys, I don’t play golf. I don’t belong to any clubs. I don’t advertise.

Chinese antiques, particularly Song ceramics,  are among the few strong interests I have outside of my work.  The same goes for the GPS company boss. His 800-year old dish and my appreciation of it forged a common language and purpose between us, pairing us like the two carved fish. The likely result: his high-tech manufacturing company will now get the capital to double in size and likely IPO within four years, while my company will earn a fee and build its expertise in China’s fast-growing automobile industry.