Soon Parted

This article was buried in the Arts section of Saturday’s NYT – and unjustly so, because the writer has stumbled on yet another bubble being pumped up by Chinese money. Last year it was stocks. The year before that it was 100-year-old fermented tea leaves. This year it’s Chinese antiquities of dubious provenance (emphasis added):

If you wonder how good the mood really is in China, forget the annual growth rate, the Shanghai Stock Exchange and the rest. Instead, look at what is happening in the auction market. Here, the news is stunning. Chinese buyers have never, ever, been so bullish.

[…] On Sept. 14, the Sackler magic sent pieces like a jade pendant with a black cicada on a white peapod soaring to $128,500, four times the high estimate. Christie’s specialists dated it with commendable prudence to the “Qing dynasty (1644-1911).” Add that the end of the reign is a lot more likely than its early stages.

Incidentally, this guy has a real flair for veiled insults. Is he angling for a guest judging spot on American Idol?

Even more intriguingly, a blue and white vase with the Qianlong reign mark (1735-96), deemed by Doyle to be worth $2,000-$3,000, realized $550,000. […] Giuseppe Eskenazi of London, the world leader in Chinese art, says that the blue and white vase is perfectly genuine, if not of special merit. It might, perhaps, have justified a $30,000 to $40,000 estimate.

Intriguingly, the winner of the bidding match was William Chak, a renowned Hong Kong dealer who is highly knowledgeable about 18th-century porcelain, which he personally collects. Mr. Chak was presumably acting as an agent for a client determined to have his way, regardless of cost.

Subtext: this guy is smart enough that he wouldn’t be paying these prices for his own account – so he must be acting for someone else.

The most extreme case concerns a pair of Famille Rose vases made during the Daoguang period (1821-50), when kitsch reigned supreme. Joseph Chan, a distinguished Hong Kong professional whom his colleagues had not seen in New York for many years, outbid Mr. Chow, paying $902,500, 10 times the estimate.

And it goes on like that for two more pages.

What’s more likely: that Christies and Doyle and every buyer in the market have chronically underpriced modern-era Chinese art with iffy provenances? Or that China’s wild-west lending standards and overly loose monetary policy have found another bubble to inflate?

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