Asian Market Report: Massive influx of cash boosting Asian art and antiques

Isadore Chait , who runs I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers, in Beverly Hills, Calif., is considered the top Asian antiques specialist in the United States, and has been selling Asian antiques since 1967.

China is the dominant player in the Asian antiques market, Chait said. “China has a gigantic middle class with an increasing amount of disposable income,” he said. “Japan’s market has been soft, and while South Korea’s is starting to build, it’s still a much smaller market. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and a number of other countries around the world have strong Chinese markets because of their large Chinese population.” He added that many mainland customers purchase their goods through Chinese buying agents bidding on their behalf at major European and American auctions.

korean buncheong ceramicsBuncheong ceramics emerged as a distinct Korean art form in the 15th and 16th centuries, only to be eclipsed on its native ground for more than 400 years by the overwhelming demand for porcelain.

While China is a Communist country, its relatively open and free economy has nurtured a healthy economy fueled by an immense American appetite for Chinese consumer goods. Having considerable discretionary income is not the only factor motivating the Chinese to acquire antiques. They want to buy back their heritage from Americans and Europeans who bought Chinese antiques in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since the Chinese opened Beijing’s Forbidden City in the 1990s, ordinary Chinese citizens have been able to view the Royal Palace, which had previously been closed to the public. The visitors are awed by the treasures and aspire to connect with their ancestors by owning comparable items.

The Chinese government is favorable to its citizens returning its artifacts to their homeland, so bureaucratic red tape is kept to a minimum. This is helped by the fact that some of the biggest movers and shakers in the market are retired Chinese government or military leaders who still hold considerable influence.

The stone known as “jade” is actually found in two forms: nephrite and jadeite. The English word jade comes from a term that means loin stone, for its reputed healing properties of the loins and kidneys.

Besides buying antiques for personal enjoyment, the Chinese also purchase them for long-term investment and for giving gifts. Gift giving is a deeply ingrained cultural tradition that helps forge not only personal but business relationships. It plays a much more important role in business in China than in Western culture. In China, it’s considered a social obligation and courtesy. For example, in order to arrange an appointment with an official, a businessman would give a gift to his secretary. And in return for an official’s approval of a business deal, the businessman may be expected to donate an expensive gift, such as an antique, to a local museum.

According to Chait, a number of areas in the Chinese antiques market are especially strong, such as Qing Dynasty imperial quality porcelains, lacquerware, 19th century or earlier cloisonné, jade (especially white jade), and large ivory objects. Chait emphasized that only top quality antiques are in great demand. Second-rate quality pieces are not. For example, much of the furniture that was exported from China to the United States in the early 20th century was produced in large quantity and is of mediocre quality, making it hard to sell at any price.

Chait said he sells 80 percent of his Asian antiques to out-of-town buyers, and at least 50 percent of that is purchased by overseas buyers. Chait also sells online through Artifact. He typically has 300 online bidders per auction and estimates that 20 to 30 percent of his sales are online purchases.

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