The delirium that has possessed collectors of Chinese antiques is largely a reflection of new wealth. During the repressive Mao era of the mid-20th century, all but the most didactic art was denigrated, collecting was outlawed, and learning about the imperial past was illegal. Over the first half-century of Communist rule, the antiquities market was pretty much limited to a small pool of buyers in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan.
Around 2005, stateside auction houses began to see an increase in mainland buyers who had been absent due to limitations on travel and restrictions on the outflows of money. In the years since, access has widened and that small pool of Southeast Asian buyers has been engulfed by a vast ocean of freshly minted Chinese collectors and their freshly minted cash. According to the Boston Consulting Group, more than 1 million Chinese are now worth more than $1 million. And according to the latest Hurun Rich List, China’s version of the Forbes 400, more than half of the mainland’s 95 billionaires reached that plateau over the last few years.
Many got rich quick on the back of their country's huge export trade and construction boom. The new elite is eager to build collections quickly, even at a premium. Impatience helps account for the soaring prices. “Too many people are chasing too few goods,” says Lark Mason, an expert in Asian art who appears frequently on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow. “During the 1980s, ’90s, and into the new century, there was ample Chinese material available because there were not enough buyers to drive the prices up and create scarcity. Today, vastly more people are capable of and interested in buying, but there’s not enough material on the market to satisfy them.”
The appetite of Chinese collectors is so prodigious that rhinoceros-horn drinking cups—intricately carved ceremonial vessels that once sold for a few hundred dollars and contributed to the near-extinction of the animal—are now commanding hundreds of thousands of dollars. At a taping of Antiques Roadshow last July in Tulsa, Okla., Mason valued a set of late 17th- or early 18th-century rhino mugs at between $1 million and 1.5 million, the highest appraisal in the program’s history. The owner told Mason he had been collecting the cups since the ’70s and was clueless about their worth. “I was hoping the guy wouldn’t collapse,” Mason recalls.
Finds like that are why Chinese collectors aggressively troll Internet auction sites. “The market is such that if something is good, it’s not going to be missed,” says Bruce MacLaren, a Chinese-art specialist at Bonhams. “The market is too global, and too many people are paying attention because there’s a lot of money to be made.”
Some auction prices have been inflated by political protest bidding. Some of the wild price fluctuations at auctions have also resulted from the difficulty of nailing down the provenance of objects that were allegedly stolen from China centuries ago. Though there’s a long tradition of making and selling reproductions in the Middle Kingdom, in a nation where the stock exchange and real estate market are famously volatile, antiques are seen as one of the more stable investments. “The Chinese have a lot of American dollars,” Mason says. “Buying Chinese antiques helps to diversify their portfolios.”
The boom has benefited enormously from the Chinese love of gambling. A significant number of buyers are speculators, for whom bidding is a kind of hedged bet. “The Chinese really enjoy the auction process because of the competitiveness,” says Michelle Liao, owner and proprietor of an Asian antiques and textiles emporium in Philadelphia. “They think bidding is a great, exciting game. They want to win and discover things that no one else knows about. They want to make a noise, to shake things up, to stir fry.”
Born in mainland China and raised comfortably in Taipei, Liao reigns over a realm of jade and ivory and silk like a dowager empress exiled out of her time. Since 1977, the high priests and priestesses of the fashion world—Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein—have made pilgrimages and sent emissaries to the Liao Collection, a cavernous space that you don’t so much walk into as wade through.
Among the bower bird's nest of Chinese treasures are ancient brush pots, flywhisks, cricket cages, beaded slippers, velvet scarves, bamboo vests, embroidered Shanxi baby shoes, and mahogany tansus. For several decades Liao went to her homeland on biannual buying junkets, sometimes venturing to the farthest reaches of the hinterlands. But the heirlooms she hunts for have become so expensive that she has cut back her expeditions to once a year.
“The dealers I used to buy from now sell mainly to buyers in China,” she says. “Demand for antiques is so tremendous over there that the wholesale cost is often higher than what I can retail them for in Philly. Yet as mind-blowing as the prices have become at Chinese-antiques auctions in the states, at least it’s still possible to get a steal. In China, those days are over.”
Liao says few Americans collect Chinese antiques on a grand scale anymore. Her Chinese clients tend to care more about rarity than quality, connoisseurship, or aesthetic appeal. “They are very, very picky,” she says. “They want stuff that’s Imperial, or could be. They’re only interested in furniture carved from four kinds of rosewood, all scarce. Especially zitan and huanghuali, the trees used for much of the interior decoration in the Forbidden City.”
Bruce MacLaren attributes the Imperial Craze to “the desire of many Chinese to own objects with a connection to status and power and authority.” For a populace so long silenced and oppressed, showy displays of prosperity can be liberating. And few prestige symbols are showier or more liberating than wares with imperial reign marks indicating that they were designated for palatial use. Imperial jade and porcelain, in particular, have considerable cachet.