Everyone has heard about Chinese products, and everyone knows about the Chinese art of the past. However, what people think they know and reality can be very different. On the products side, life can be treacherous. There are fakes, poor quality, and dishonesty from the start to the finish of your dealings. On the art side, Chinese art has evolved over the last century, and, although the older, more traditional styles of art are still being produced, oil painting, a la the West, has become a major part of Chinese artistic endeavor over the last century, and China has participated in major artistic movements from Impressionism onward.
That is not even the best news. The really good news is that prices of this modern Chinese art, just like the prices of all of the products that the Western World has been buying from China over the last two decades, are relatively inexpensive because of the mispricing of the Chinese Yuan. It is the reason, we figure, that buyers, in London, New York, Hong Kong, and Macau, account for almost half of the monetary value of sales, in the auction markets for Chinese art. In fact, those buyers outside the mainland have another advantage: they know art, and they use it to decorate, to invest in, or just to appreciate. Inside China, the whole idea of home decoration has not yet really caught on. Thus, there is a lack of competition from the mainland in buying art, not only because it is expensive, but also because home decoration, including wall art, sculpture, and even nice rugs for the floors, is not part of the current culture.
My specialty is investing in inefficient market. I worked on Wall Street, managing private money, in arbitrage, in the 1980s and early 1990’s. In addition, over the last four decades, I have been involved in art investment, mostly 18th and 19th century American and European antiques and paintings. In the early 1990’s, I had a fairly large collection, so I bought an 18th century estate, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and restored it to house the collection. Eventually, we turned the estate into a country inn, Auldridge Mead, which gained international recognition and appeared in major magazines, including Country Living (cover and four pages, inside), Vogue Magazine (cover and inside), Italian Vogue, and Travel & Leisure. It was also included in a book, written in the late 1990’s, called “The Best of Everything”. Visitors to the inn would comment that it was like being able to stay in a museum because they got to experience fine art and antiques, up close for an extended period of time, not just for an afternoon craning at pieces over the barriers, in an ordinary museum.
I came to China, four years ago, as a foreign expert to teach finance and economics at a joint program between an Australian University and South China Normal University, in Guangzhou, formerly called Canton and presently one of the major areas for producing products for export. I considered starting a business in exports, but after careful analysis, I decided that that particular business is on its way out. The same was true for the local real estate markets and the securities markets.
My first discovery about art, in China, was that they make really good reproductions of famous Western oil paintings, all hand painted, not machine produced paintings or prints. Then, I discovered the wonderful hand-sculpted teapots that are only made in one part of the world: Yixing, China, where there are deposits of the so-called zisha clay that allows for such creative and beautiful teapot art. Of course, that has limited value for home décor, plus that market has become somewhat overheated, at least in terms of the works of certain artists. My first Christmas, here, I discovered that there are certain small bronze-casting studios, mostly located in Xi’an, the former capital of China, that make wonderful reproductions of famous cast bronze Chinese sculptures from the past several thousand year history of bronze sculpture, in China. With subjects, like horses, cranes, rams and owls, they are not particularly Chinese looking, like the wispy ink and brush wall art of the past. Moreover, they come in sizes that could be displayed on a coffee table or larger sizes that can be displayed on their own, and, again, the prices are incredibly cheap, in terms of Western currencies, especially, for the quality of the craftsmanship (of course, not all studios have the same level of quality). I also discovered a small glass art studio that makes, not only wonderful, weighty glass vases, but also artfully-done sculpture. Later, I discovered Chinese embroidery art, which is beyond the embroidery that I owned as part of the collection at my country inn. In this medium, fine silk thread is used to create whole scenes and portraits that are actually suitable for framing, just like paintings. They look like paintings, from a distance, and the light shimmer of the silk threads, in different colors sewn in different directions, give them a three-dimensional feel, up close. This incredibly detailed work can take as much as a year to complete a larger work (5′ by 3′), and, as machine-made embroidery displaces this traditional hand-embroidery, it is becoming more and more rare.
In the last year, my wish list was completed when I befriended and partnered with a local dealer in original oil paintings, who has been in the business, here, for several decades.