ACF China in the New York Times/Herald Tribune: Reactionaries? Make That ‘Collectors’

ACF-China_new-york-times-article-1170x550 ACF China in the New York Times/Herald Tribune: Reactionaries? Make That ‘Collectors’

Pretty neat. If anyone can pick up a copy for me it would be much appreciated as I have yet to see in print.

Reactionaries? Make That ‘Collectors’

By DAN LEVIN Published: February 3, 2010
Original article online at:

CONTESTANT No. 3, a portly man in suspenders named Cui Xiaosong, clutched a golden mallet and gulped like an executioner having second thoughts. As a guest on China’s wildly popular antiques reality show “Collection World,” Mr. Cui knew he might have to get violent before the next commercial break. The victim? A delicately painted vase he had brought to the show, which he believed to be from the Qing dynasty and worth about $30,000.

“If it’s a fake, will you smash it?” asked the program’s white-gloved host, Wang Gang, as Mr. Cui faced the studio audience and three guest judges.

Mr. Cui nodded. The audience quieted down and Mr. Wang used the final minute to impart a bit of wisdom about collecting antiques in modern-day China: “Just as China opened up, so too is collecting about opening the mind to understand the outside world.”

It was hard to tell whether Mr. Cui was listening, but he certainly heard the host announce the judges’ verdict: “It’s a modern reproduction!”

Mr. Cui winced as he swung the mallet, shattering the vase — and with it his dreams of the wealth it might have brought at auction. Cue the instant replay.

Some four decades after the Cultural Revolution, when many of the country’s centuries-old treasures were defaced or destroyed as a result of Mao’s command to eradicate “the four olds” — old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits — China has reversed its attitude toward antiques. Ming dynasty porcelain vases, 19th-century hardwood furniture and even early 20th-century calligraphy ink pots have become popular status symbols for an emerging middle class eager to display its new wealth and cultural knowledge. The antiques market has become so hot, in fact, that it has given rise to a new category of must-see TV here.

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TREASURE HUNT A worker at the ACF China furniture factory with a refurbished trunk.

In recent years, “Collection World” and a dozen other similar shows — with names like “Treasure Appraisal” and “Art Collector” — have been luring both serious collectors and armchair enthusiasts, offering information on collecting trends and appraisal techniques, and encouraging a new wave of treasure hunting.

While some in the antiques world laud these programs for turning antiquing into a national pastime, others are skeptical of their educational value. As Yan Zhentang, the president of the Chinese Collectors’ Association, noted, “These shows certainly help get ordinary people interested in antiques, but the bottom line is they are just entertainment, and they make mistakes.”

Daniel Newham, a British expatriate who has become a popular television personality in China, said he was dismayed by the lack of professionalism when he served as a celebrity judge on an episode of “Collection World.”

“The other judges were pretty awful,” Mr. Newham said, adding that one of them admitted to him that he had only recently started working in the field of antiques and did not have the skills to properly appraise the featured items. (The show’s executives declined to comment and refused to allow Mr. Wang, the host, to be interviewed.)

Nevertheless, the shows have attracted a devoted following. Zhou Yajun, a long-distance truck driver and collector from Hebei Province, near Beijing, said he watched “Collection World” and other antiques shows every week, testing his appraisal skills against those of the judges in the hope that he could learn to outwit the counterfeiters who prey on the country’s amateur antiquarians.

Mr. Zhou, 38, said he began collecting antiques four years ago, and his hobby quickly became all-consuming. “For a week after I bought my first antique, I would hug it to sleep, I was so excited,” he said, showing off photos of his favorite purchases on his cellphone during a morning of poking around Panjiayuan, Beijing’s vast antiques market.

Mr. Zhou said he had spent the equivalent of $12,000 so far feeding his addiction, a hefty sum for a man who earns less than $18,000 a year. But spending so much time alone on the road takes an emotional toll, and collecting has become a way to fill the void.

“If I don’t see my antiques for a few days, I miss them,” he said.

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“The problem is, everyone wants to collect now, so there’s not much of the real stuff left,” he added, eyeing some rusty coins advertised as 100 years old before shaking his head and moving on to the next vendor.

Distinguishing real Chinese relics from their latter-day replicas can be a daunting task, especially since forgers have access to the same televised information that collectors do. “I used to go to the countryside to buy antiques,” Mr. Zhou said. “But lately I’ve found the peasants are buying fakes and making up a story to pass the pieces off as authentic.”

Perhaps wisely, Mr. Zhou has come up with his own way of evaluating authenticity: “After I buy something, I put it in my home for two days,” he said. “If I start to like it, it’s real. If not, it’s counterfeit.”

THE Chinese government has become increasingly assertive about claiming ownership of its national heirlooms. It condemned Christie’s last year for auctioning bronze sculptures looted from the capital’s Old Summer Palace in 1860 and, more recently, it sent out government officials and art historians to inspect the collections of global art institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian for cultural artifacts that might have been illegally obtained from China. And so, many private collectors have come to regard their passion not just as a smart investment, but as a patriotic duty.

“Chinese people are becoming richer and need to be responsible for our dignity and history,” said He Shuzhong, the deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage’s legal and policy department and the founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, a nonprofit organization. “How can China rise peacefully if we cannot protect our culture?”

But many in the industry acknowledge that the profits driving the antiques trade are a more powerful incentive than nationalism.

As Yan Xubao, 31, a dealer at the ACF China furniture company in the Gaobeidian market on the outskirts of Beijing, observed, “Without a free capitalistic spirit, these antiques would still be buried in the countryside somewhere.”

Mr. Yan is a regular at many of the city’s antiques wholesale markets, where peasants bring old broken furniture, farming tools and stone carvings collected from the outer provinces. Such items are bought by urban restorers, like those at ACF, who resell the repaired pieces, often at a huge markup.

While the global economic crisis has affected ACF’s wholesale business, which often exports to retailers abroad, its retail sales have remained relatively robust because of the strength of the Chinese economy and the antiques industry’s growing grassroots base in China, said Roger Schwendeman, founder and one of the company’s managing partners.

Mr. Schwendeman, an American who has worked in China’s antiques trade for eight years, said Chinese buyers are still paying top dollar for jade and furniture from the Ming and Qing dynasties made from rare hardwoods like yellow rosewood and ebony, which most foreigners ignore.

“Western buyers ask about history, while Chinese are interested in the value of the material,” he said, over the noise of hammering and sawing, as a trio of workers restored an ornately carved rosewood cabinet at his factory outside Beijing.

Many of those same foreigners who bought up troves of China’s antiques in the 1980s and ’90s are now seeking out the increasingly wealthy mainland Chinese buyers, Mr. Schwendeman added. “They know the money and passion are in China.”

One Reply to “ACF China in the New York Times/Herald Tribune: Reactionaries? Make That ‘Collectors’”

  1. Great article, I am going to bookmark ACF China in the New York Times/Herald Tribune | The specialists guide to Chinese antiques.

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