Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ker Qing! – Chinese cash registers overflowing for Bling Dynasty porcelain, but will they pay?

In recent weeks the world has looked on in awe as the power of social networking has helped topple brutal regimes in North Africa and threatened to destabilize complacent despots in the Middle East.

Today, we see how the scrutinizing eye of the social network also extends deep into the cultural zone. Auction houses and private collectors now face unprecedented opposition when seeking to profit from treasures looted from subaltern nations during the colonial era. That opposition is invariably being marshalled through social networks.

I suggested back in March 2009 (here) that the quickening debate about the ownership of previously looted cultural objects could usher in a new era of "guerilla activism" at art auctions. That particular post was prompted by the 2009 hijacking of Christie’s Paris sale of the Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Bergé collection when Cai Mingchao, a director of the Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Company, successfully bought, but subsequently refused to pay for, the Qing bronze rat and rabbit (right) that had been looted from the Summer Palace by the British in the 1860s.

Even more recently, Sotheby’s were forced into withdrawing from sale a Benin ivory mask looted by the British Punitive Expedition to Benin in 1897. Opposition to the planned sale was global and uncompromising and very largely driven by a chorus of voices on social networks.

Now it seems the vendor of the Qing Dynasty porcelain vase that sold for a mystifying £53 million at Bainbridges Auction Rooms in Ruislip a few weeks ago (above left) may be the latest victim of the ongoing cultural heritage war.

This week the The Daily Mail reports that the vendors of the vase are concerned that four months after the auction they have still not been paid. Speculation is growing that this could turn out to be another false bid by Chinese cultural heritage activist groups seeking to disrupt European sales of looted artefacts. Mr Bainbridge, the auctioneer – (seen applauding from the rostrum in the image above right) who is also set to retire on the proceeds – insists that all is well.

It may be too early to pronounce on the Bainbridge vase, but even if the Chinese buyers do pay up one can be sure that skirmishes over cultural objects will continue and doubtless intensify in the months and years to come. One question arises, however. It may be perfectly legitimate to oppose the trade in works of art looted from their countries of origin, but is hijacking an auction the right way to proceed?

Those emerging economies now seeking the return of their material culture argue that western businesses and cultural institutions have been allowed to operate unopposed for too long. Guerilla bids at art auctions are seen as the only recourse available to developing nations, particularly when western museums, auction houses and private collectors stubbornly refuse to enter into dialogue over the future of disputed cultural objects.

It will be fascinating to see whether the Chinese do pay up for the vase. If they don’t, it might explain why such a staggering price was achieved for something so gaudy (“classic Bling Dynasty,” as one wag described it). It would also explain why there were so many grinning Chinese faces in the room as the hammer fell (i.e. they were never intending to pay, but bidding it up so high guarantees media attention for the broader cause).

However, let’s not underestimate the genuine strength of feeling in China about this issue. When I blogged about Mr Cai’s hijacking of the Pierre Bergé sale, Li, a Chinese visitor to these pages, commented thus:

"Those looted cultural heritages [sic] always remind us of what we have been through during the war time. When people's mind and body were fooled and weakened by drugs, homes, palaces and cities burnt, treasuries robbed away. And the Qing Government was very weak at that time.

After 1949, we established our new government. We've been through hard times and good times. Like many countries, we also have issues and problems to face when making our country a better home for its people. And indeed we are getting better and stronger, regaining the strength.

We collected those art pieces, here and there, in different ways. Law suits, and money. Why? There were a lot of things we should do to protect our family during the war time, but we failed to, and we felt shameful.

Today, when we collect the things back, the art pieces designed and made by our ancient artists, we feel that we are healing the scars, little by little, and feel that we are helping our family to regain its glory, piece by piece.

If you get to know a Chinese concept of "Wan Bi Gui Zhao": (A man risked his life to protect his country's treasure), you'd understand more about Mr.Cai's action."