Chinese art's hefty ticket back home

Updated: 2013-03-29 11:33

By Derek Bosko in New York (China Daily)

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Chinese art's hefty ticket back home

Prospective Chinese buyers inspect an antique snuff bottle at Jadestone's "From Curiosity to Devotion" sales exhibit in New York. Derek Bosko / China Daily

A late-Shang dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC) bronze tripod jue gets passed down by generations of an American family, losing two of its legs as well as the awe it once inspired, only to find its way on a plane back to China legs in tow and re-attached.

"People don't realize they have a 3,000-year-old Chinese bronze vessel that they are using as a door stop or a dog's water bowl," said Erick Schiess, owner of Jadestone Fine Asian Art, Appraisal & Consulting LLC, a Portland, Oregon-based dealer of highly sought Asian art. Jadestone exhibited in New York during Asia Week, on March 15-23, which was a celebration of Asian art by museums, auction houses and cultural institutions.

Jadestone's sales exhibit - "From Curiosity to Devotion" - included Chinese art and artifacts, ranging from religious Buddhist statuettes to secular snuff bottles and hand-carved jade objects. Schiess said almost all of them came from early American collections, with a few snuff bottles from a Portuguese collector.

"The majority of the pieces were sold to buyers from the Chinese mainland and are being returned to Chinese collections and Chinese dealers," said Schiess. About 80 percent of Schiess's clients are from Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an and some from Hong Kong as well as Taiwan. He also has Chinese-American clients in New York and some internationally based American and European clients.

The link among the artifacts that were on display is reflected in the double meaning of the exhibition's title. Many of the secular pieces such as snuff bottles were often referred to as "curios" and the sacred Buddhist/Taoist artworks were classified as "devotional".

When it comes to taste, there seems to be a large disconnect between the Western and Chinese buyer.

An American woman at the exhibit at the Fuller building on Madison Avenue and 57th Street said she found out about it in a newspaper and was a "casual" collector.

The woman, who declined to be named, said she was interested in some of the snuff bottles and jade, but "not so much" in the Buddhist art. She directed her attention toward the intricate carvings and general aesthetics of each piece.

"Western buyers are not picky about the color of the jade or its purity, and American collectors are often attracted to the diversity of jade colors and the carvings," Schiess said. Chinese buyers "desire purity in jade as it is perceived as perfection, evenness in color, often white or yellow jade," he said.

Buyers at the exhibit from Beijing were mostly preoccupied with jade objects or snuff bottles.

"Most Chinese buyers, with the exception of those interested in archaic bronze, are paying top-dollar for Ming and Qing dynasty items from the 14th century to the early 20th century," Schiess said. "Qianlong items are super popular and important."

Snuff bottles occupied a large portion of the exhibit, with prices from $1,000 to $50,000. Snuff, a powdered form of tobacco that is inhaled through the nose, originally came from the Americas and spread throughout Europe, eventually making its way to China in about the 17th century. Chinese nobility exclusively used snuff, and the craftsmanship of older snuff bottles is intricate and artistic. Snuff became more accessible to other classes in China during the late 19th century, and the bottles' craftsmanship declined, Schiess said. Snuff bottles, often made of porcelain or glass and sealed with a cork, are not to be confused with European snuffboxes that open on a hinge and lack portability.

Appraising Chinese art has gotten trickier due to fast-rising prices and the proliferation of forgeries. Schiess, who studied Asian Art history, Chinese language and business at the University of Oregon and later went to Pratt Institute in New York to study art appraisal, said he has been going to auctions since he was 5 years old.

"In the past, forgeries were easy to spot because they were based off of photos and the weight and texture would be wrong," said Schiess.

Now, art fabrication in China is done with the highest level of craftsmanship and fake pieces are fed into legitimate collections to fool buyers, he said.

While many art collectors may go to Sotheby's or Christie's, Schiess said that his gallery offers a personal touch that's not found at big auction houses.

"I sit down with my clients, we have a cup of tea and do research together," he said. "I guarantee all of the items I sell and there is no pressure."

He said many of his clients are close friends and he often represents them at auctions.

The only problem Schiess said that he has with his Chinese clients is their impatience.

"Chinese buyers, unlike Western buyers, don't like when you just put a red dot," meaning the item has been sold, said Schiess. "They want to wrap it up and take it back to China."

(China Daily 03/29/2013 page11)