"One-hundred-and-eighty thousand ... $200,000. Two-hundred-and-five thousand ... 210 ... any advance on $210,000?" On this September afternoon at Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia, the auctioneer's chant becomes a kind of elegy for China’s Cultural Revolution and the Little Red Book. The competition is fierce, tenacious, and heated, with bidders vying for everything from porcelain bottle vases to elephant-ivory fruit baskets, from amber pendants to carved hornbill heads, from bronze Buddhas to zitan floor screens. It’s a small miracle that many of these objects survived the mindless destruction of the Boxer Rebellion, the second Sino-Japanese War, and the Red Guard.
The big-ticket item turns out to be a white-jade seal topped by intertwined dragons, their nostrils flared, eyes bulging, whiskers curled. The piece, cautiously described in Freeman’s glossy 194-page catalog as “Imperial-style,” was acquired by a local consignor in 1970. Though the object has been valued between $30,000 and $50,000, a nearly identical seal with a long and impeccable provenance was auctioned at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2010. It went for $15.6 million.
When the item comes up for sale, four cellphone-brandishing Asian bidders alternately raise their paddles in a game of high-stakes pingpong. Three of the volleyers sport Lacoste polo shirts, in blue, green, and orange; the fourth, a white button-down oxford. All four tell me they are agents for buyers in mainland China but decline to identify themselves or their employers.
As the price rises rapidly in $100,000 intervals, a quiver of excitement flows through the salesroom. "Two-million-three ... and I have a two-million-four,” says auctioneer Charles Freeman, his voice taking on a rhythmic urgency. “I hear two-million-six. Do you care to bid?" Green Lacoste does. Everyone else gasps. Everyone but White Oxford, who whispers into his phone and raises him $300,000.
Green Lacoste whispers into his phone and raises him another $100,000. "Do I hear 3.1 million?" asks Freeman. White Oxford whispers and tentatively holds up his paddle. Freeman looks at Green Lacoste and asks, "3.2? Do you care to bid?" Green Lacoste sighs and bows out. "Three-point-one million is the bid." Bang! "Three-point-one million dollars takes it." The room erupts in applause.
With fees and commission, the final tally is $3.5 million, almost triple any lot sold in Freeman’s 206-year history. The entire sale is the auction house’s most successful ever, with an $8 million haul—more than double its appraiser’s prediction. Blue Lacoste doesn’t join in the merriment. “I should have won the seal for 2 million,” he grumbles, “but the people bidding against me were crazy.”
Mad money is driving the boom in Chinese antiques, a prime emblem of affluence for a status-obsessed people. Chinese works—particularly those that might have an Imperial pedigree—are selling for up to 10 times what they did five or six years ago. Bypassed, if not exactly ignored in the past by collectors, the finest Chinese furniture has surpassed the top European and American pieces in value. In a cultural phenomenon with fascinating economic and sociological underpinnings, the mainland’s nouveau riche are paying emperor’s ransoms to reclaim their country’s treasures. Their knowledge of antiques may be shallow, but their pockets are incredibly deep.
Last year, despite the global recession, the London salesrooms of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams set house records as dealers and mainland collectors pushed up prices. In New York, Christie’s robust September sale of Chinese ceramics and artwork took in roughly $38 million. The highlight was a rare blue and white Ming-style moonflask that dated from the mid-to-late-17th century and bore a Qianlong seal mark. The moonflask fetched $2.65 million, nearly quintupling its estimate.
Earlier in the summer, at the French provincial auction house Labarbe, seven Asian bidders tried to outmuscle each other for a 1739 scroll painting that had allegedly been stolen from the Forbidden City in 1900. The gavel fell after a $31 million bid by a Beijing-based collector. Even that was chump change compared to the staggering ascent of a famille-rose vase last May. Though Sotheby’s New York had timidly listed the vase as “probably Republican period,” Chinese bidders ignored the $800 to $1,200 estimate and propelled the price to more than $18 million, around 20,000 times the suggested price.
In all three auctions, bidders decided the salesroom’s description had been too conservative. That is precisely what happened in Philadelphia, where Freeman’s assessment of the jade seal’s value turned out to be breathtakingly inaccurate.