Song Dynasty

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.  


More of China’s Art Treasures Belong At Home

Song porcelain from China First Capital blog post

Hangzhou’s main art museum, known as the Zhejiang Provincial Museum,  sits on a nicer plot of land than any museum I’ve ever been to, including the Louvre in Paris and National Gallery in London. It’s on a small bend in the road that circles the city’s famous Xi Hu, or West Lake. From the museum entrance, you look out across the lake at a particularly lovely spot, with a small steep island ahead and the steeper mountains beyond. The museum itself is modern, in a classically-Chinese format, with pavilions reached by gabled walkways, set among small streams teeming with koi. 

The setting is perfect, but sadly, the museum’s contents are anything but. One pavilion offers a bunch of world “art treasures” that looked like they were bought for ten bucks each at airport souvenir stores . A low point: a set of mounted bull horns from Indiana. Another beautiful pavilion had the paintings and personal effects of a Hangzhou-born 20th century artist who had studied painting in France in the early part of the century, and then did some so-so pastiches of Chinese subject matter, incorporating elements of Cezanne, Picasso, Monet among others. 

A pavilion said to hold “historical relics” was locked and empty. Finally, you get to the two buildings with Chinese porcelains. My hopes remained high, since, after all, Hangzhou is the greatest of all China’s cultural cities, capital of the Southern Song dynasty, which produced (for my money) the finest porcelains the world has ever seen, including Jun, Ding, Guan, Yaozhou, Longguan, Qingbai, Cizhou, Ge styles. (The bowl above is an example of Song Dynasty Guan porcelain.) I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of Song porcelains over the years, in museums in the West, and have handled a fair number at auctions in London and New York.  Many were produced close to Hangzhou. 

My not-unrealistic expectation, therefore,  was that the Hangzhou museum would have both more and better Song porcelains than I’d ever seen. So sure was I of this that I invited four CFC colleagues to come along with me, after we finished a client meeting. 

Bad choice. The museum, though in a gorgeous setting on a lake fabled for its beauty and historical meaning, is mainly a sad reminder that many of China’s most important art treasures are held outside the country, in museums and private collections. The porcelains in the Hangzhou museum look like (and most probably are) the leftovers after all the best pieces had been spirited away. The celadons have little sparkle or translucence, and have a gimpy shape.  There are no examples of the Jun and Guan styles most prized by connoisseurs. The one Yaozhou bowl is clumsily carved. Song burial urns are among the least ornate and less precisely-molded I’ve ever seen. 

The two pavilions with Song porcelains are a colossal disappointment, not just because the art works are generally of middling quality. Instead, a museum that should be a encapsulation of the greatness of Song culture is, instead, a subtle reminder of how much has been lost or pillaged.  Thousands of Song wares are in collections, public and private, around the world. At least six times a year, Sothebys and Christies hold auctions in London, New York and Hong Kong that include dozens of  works of Song porcelain far better than any on display in the Hangzhou museum. Museums from Tokyo to Paris to Washington D.C. are loaded with great works from the Song. 

But, here in Hangzhou, there are only cast-offs. Among the millions of Chinese who come to Hangzhou each year as tourists,  most will likely leave with no concrete appreciation of the paramount artistic achievements of the Song culture that sprang from here.  Instead, many must end up wondering, after visiting the museum, if there’s really anything much to be proud of from that period. One of the two pavilions for Song porcelain is almost entirely made up of shards of the most common sort of household pottery from the Song era, not the exquisite pieces crafted for emperors and scholars. 

The effect is a little like visiting Tiffany, expecting to ogle the diamonds, and finding it filled instead with broomsticks and knitting needles. 

The Chinese government, quite publicly, has been seeking to block the sale at auction of art objects looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing. It’s a small step toward the goal of one day recovering more of China’s lost artistic patrimony. I’d personally like to see the Chinese government more active, not just blocking the sale of items stolen long ago, but also buying some of the more important Chinese antiques that come on the market.

It’s easy to understand why the Chinese government has so far refused to do so, since they don’t want to let others profit from what it sees as wrongful expropriation. But, as a lesser of evils, I’d prefer them to bring back some of the more beautiful objects, and add them to the collections of important national museums like the one in Hangzhou. That way, at least, more Chinese would have opportunities to admire up close the crowning achievements of Chinese culture. 

It’s a good side project for CIC, China’s sovereign wealth fund, and China’s State Pension Fund. Along with trying to secure the country’s financial future, these two organizations could also invest, on a comparably small scale, to secure more of the country’s incomparable artistic heritage. 

The museum visit left me feeling sad, but also resolved to do my own small part. I’m fortunate to own a few Chinese porcelains and jade pieces from the Qing and Ming dynasties. The jade was left to me by my grandfather, who started collecting in the 1950s. I’d like to donate the art works to a Chinese museum when I die, if not sooner.  While nowhere near as important as the items regularly at auction at Sothebys and Christies, they are decent examples of the output of some of China’s finest artists and artisans. 

Art is a shared inheritance. But, more of China’s treasures should be seen where they were crafted.