Sotheby’s Denies Chinese Scroll was Inauthentic

Signed Su Shi, this object sold at auction in September of 2013, it was billed at the sale as a masterpiece created over 1000 years ago
Signed Su Shi, this object sold at auction in September of 2013, it was billed at the sale as a masterpiece created over 1000 years ago

In September Sotheby’s sold this scroll for $8.2 million to a Shanghai businessman, Liu Yiqian. At the time of the sale the work was described as an important work which is over one-thousand years old. Perhaps one of the most important works of calligraphy, which bore seals indicated important historical figures had owned the piece.

Now it seems there are doubts. Researchers based in Shanghai have alleged that the scroll is in fact a 19th century creation. The claims of the researchers are widely reported in the Chinese press. Whether this qualifies it as a fake, a forgery, or a simple reproduction depends I suppose on the intent of the creator. Note I’ve hedged the question a bit in the title calling it ‘inauthentic’. This would have damaging consequences for Sotheby’s plans to step into the Asian art market. Reuters reports that the auction house “has sought to establish itself in China as a trustworthy seller of foreign and contemporary art, while avoiding the scandals that have hit the local auction industry. It held its first full China auction in December.”

Now Sotheby’s is aggressively defending against these allegations. No surprise given the devastating consequences this might have for the auction house just as it attempts to make strides the Asian art market, and move past the embarrassing dispute over the recently-returned looted Koh Ker statue from Cambodia.

David Barboza reports for the NY Times arts blog:

In a 14-page report, published in Chinese, Sotheby’s said it had found no evidence that the work, Gong Fu Tie, by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi, was a forgery. The piece has long been considered one of the greatest works of calligraphy.

In a statement, Sotheby’s said it “firmly stands by” the piece as a work produced by Su Shi.

“We have published a detailed and comprehensive analysis rebutting each of the issues raised about the authenticity of the work,” the auction house said in a statement. “This report demonstrates that the brushwork of The Gong Fu Tie Calligraphy is inconsistent with that of a late copy or tracing as was alleged and is of such high quality that it could only have been created by a masterly hand using a soft brush.

Furthermore, we have established that both the seals and colophon are genuine, serving as further proof that the piece was created by Su Shi.”

The reports I have seen of Sotheby’s arguments focus on technical aspects of the object. The brushwork and other details. Nothing I have seen yet talks about the history of the object itself. Who owned it? What is the ownership history before the 19th century, if any? Those may of course be difficult or impossible questions to answer given the length of time. And yet those are the best possible arguments. They are ones that auction houses have been often unable to use, because they have too long been hesitant to look at this kind of deep history of objects, training their buyers instead on the aesthetic and other merits of objects as a means to generate value.

19 Arrested in Connection with Jade Thefts

Dawn raids in London, Sussex, Cambridgeshire, the West Midlands, Essex, and Northern Ireland have netted the arrest of 19 individuals in connection with the theft of Chinese works of art and rhinoceros horn. The arrests were connected to six thefts, which occurred over four months in 2012:

Continue reading “19 Arrested in Connection with Jade Thefts”

Auctions and Civil Disobedience (UPDATE)

The Christie’s Auction catalog with a bronze rabbit head

Earlier this week I was able to watch a screening on Earth Day of ‘Bidder 70’ a new documentary which examines the story of Tim DeChristopher. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and a $10,000 fine. His crime? He attended an oil and gas lease auction and bid on Utah land which was being leased for oil and gas exploration with no intent to buy the land (he didn’t have the money) or to drill on it. I’m not as interested in going through a review of the documentary itself. I thought overall its well worth taking a look at, but my biggest frustration with the story was it left out a lot of the details of the auction process, how he was able to bid and refuse to pay, and how his act of civil disobedience ended up being successful.

From what I gathered the Bush administration in their last weeks in office put opened up lots of land for oil and gas leases, and that DeChristopher successfully ruined these auctions. And then when the Obama administration took office the Department of the Interior later decided not to auction these parcels of land after all. The film does a great job of presenting DeChristopher’s story, and conveying his indignation at the ruination of what appears to be some pristine Utah wilderness.

But watching the documentary I was most struck by the connections between a couple of events that I’ve traced here before: the Bronze zodiac auctions in France from the Yves Saint-Laurent sale, and the sentencing of antiquities looters in Utah. Environmental and cultural heritage issues are inextricably linked, and the different priorities of prosecution and sentencing on display here were really striking.

If you aren’t familiar with the sad saga of the Chinese Zodiac heads, here’s a quick overview. Over 150 years ago the Summer Palace near Beijing was looted by British troops. Lots of art was burned, looted, destroyed, or lost. Some objects which had been taken were parts of a beautiful ornate fountain/clock mechanism which had the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. A handful of these still existing heads have been purchased by Chinese repatriation advocates on the open market. And two of these bronze figurines, the rabbit and the rat were acquired by Yves Saint Laurent. Well on his death many objects from his estate were set to go up for auction at Christie’s in Paris. But the looting of the Chinese Summer Palace is a notorious event in Chinese history, and the Chinese government lodged a number of protests at the sale. When the two heads were up for auction, the successful bid was nearly 32 million Euro. The winning bidder was Cao Mingchao, owner of a small auction house in China. After the auction he refused to pay the bid, exacting the same kind of civil disobedience that DeChristopher went to prison for. After the auction Mingchao stated “What I want to stress is that this money cannot be paid (…) I think any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment. It was just that the opportunity came to me. I was merely fulfilling my responsibilities.” Despite some hints at a French prosecution of the bidder, those never materialized and the heads as I understand it were never actually auctioned.

There have been a number of controversial sales of Precolumbian and native american sacred items in France in recent months. And it seems that despite some legal attempts to block sales, this kind of technically legal, but morally objectionable auction; which the current heritage law framework deems ok; will only be blocked if an auction house bends to public pressure or if there’s a bidder exercising civil disobedience.

Remember that in this part of the country the Four-Corners investigation uncovered a large network of illicit native american objects. That investigation led to 3 suicides and a number of citizens being indicted and later pleading guilty to heritage crimes. But no custodial sentences have been imposed. The sad takeaway is I think that you can loot native american sites, and the Federal government will have irregular investigations, but mess with the leasing of oil and gas, and you’ll feel the weight of the federal government.

Here’s the trailer for Bidder 70:
Bidder 70 – Trailer from Gage & Gage Productions on Vimeo.

UPDATE:

And now it looks like the rat and rabbit will be returned to China: http://bit.ly/ZpP67I

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Arrests in the Fitzwilliam Theft

There are reports that between two and six individuals have been arrested in connection with the theft of 18 Chinese objects from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The theft was the subject of BBC’s Crimewatch Tuesday:

The stolen pieces had been given as gifts or bequests to the museum, with some experts estimating the artifacts to be worth approximately £18 million (about $28.7 million Cdn). None of the artifacts has been recovered. Police sought help from the public through a segment on the BBC-TV program Crimewatch on Tuesday evening. The show aired closed-circuit camera footage of four suspects sought in conjunction with the robbery.

As Dick Ellis explained in an interview last week, these thieves probably saw the booming trade in Chinese artworks, and may not have understood how difficult an eventual sale would be. Much in the same way similar objects were stolen from the Durham museum.

17th Century jade "imaginary beast" stolen from Fitzwilliam MuseumNoah Charney speculated last week that the stolen objects will be “smuggled [to China] . . . for in China the general rules about not purchasing art without performing Due Diligence and checking stolen art databases do not apply. Provenance is far less of an issue, sometimes for cultural reasons, but also for practical ones–Internet black-outs mean that many in China could not check stolen art databases, even if they were inclined to do so.” I’m not sure that will be the case.

The Chinese have—on paper at least—the most regulated art market in the world, with a tiered series of regulation. It is one of the only sets of regulations which puts direct regulation in the art market, at the point of sale. Are there problems and corruption? Perhaps. But what art market—whether its in Rome, Paris, London, or New York is not corrupt?

In 2002, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the Law on the Protection of Cultural Relics. The 2002 Law legalizes private transactions involving cultural relics in five circumstances, (1) legal inheritance or gift; (2) purchase from cultural relics shops; (3) purchase from cultural relics auction enterprises; (4) exchanges or transfers between individual citizens; and (5) other methods authorized by the central government. Many of these transactions take place at officially sanctioned cultural relics shops and auction enterprises; and the 2002 Law prohibits a cultural relic shop from running an auction and vice versa.

Under Article 58, the government may buy any cultural relic submitted to a mandatory inspection before sale pursuant to Article 56. During this mandatory inspection, under Article 56, the government is given a kind of right of first refusal, with the purchase price determined by the government representative. Pursuant to article 57, in the event of a sale to a private individual, a report is produced, effectively tracking the buyers and sellers of cultural objects. This new regulatory framework seems a very aggressive strategy, and one that, if implemented effectively, could positively impact the illicit trade in China. However, implementing this strategy may be difficult and subject to corruption.  And yet by recording who buys what, it may be possible not only to track the chain of title of specific cultural objects, but also to evaluate whether individuals are routinely buying and selling stolen, looted, or suspicious objects. What other nation does this routinely? Perhaps the Italian Carabinieri, but that may be it.

Many in the West have an immediate reaction to all things China. And I think that quote above does not really convey the reality of the Chinese art market. Prof. Paul Bator remarked in 1983 that China was the great under-researched area of the world when it comes to sources of heritage theft (he called it art theft). Despite s few reports, that is still the case. We can blame the Chinese for other problems perhaps, but the Chinese art market does not I think bear the collective guilt for the Fitzwilliam theft. Rather it seems to be a more homegrown set of thieves from East London.

  1. He Shuzhong, Protection of China’s Cultural Heritage, 5 J. Art, Antiquity & L., 19 (2000).
  2. J. David Murphy, Plunder and preservation : cultural property law and practice in the People’s Republic of China, (1995), http://www.bcin.ca/Interface/openbcin.cgi?submit=submit&Chinkey=204154 (last visited May 2, 2012).
  3. Andrew Jacobs, China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums, The New York Times, December 17, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/17/world/asia/17china.html?_r=2&hp (last visited Dec 17, 2009).
  4. Peter Foster, China to study British Museum for looted artefacts, Telegraph.co.uk, October 19, 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/6374959/China-to-study-British-Museum-for-looted-artefacts.html (last visited Oct 20, 2009).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Ellis on the Cambridge Theft

A jade vase and recumbent buffalo and horse
Some of the objects taken from the Fitzwilliam on April 13

Dick Ellis can always be relied on to provide a sensible commentary on a recent theft. Speaking to the Cambridge-news he argues it is unlikely that the thieves stole the objects to order. The 18 stolen objects were taken from the Fitzwilliam museum, and as always the trick is not the stealing, it is selling or profiting off the theft. Ellis notes to the BBC:

Almost certainly, in my opinion, the museum was targeted in the same way as we saw thieves target rhino horns when their price went through the roof. They have an appreciation that in the last couple of years the Chinese art market has now outstripped the United States and European art markets to become the premier art market in the world.The thought is that if you steal some quality items – and you will find quality items in museum collections – you can sell them on to a Chinese market that has an insatiable appetite for this sort of thing.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Art Theft at the Forbidden City

Seven works of 20th century decorative art have been stolen from the Palace Museum inside the Forbidden City in Beijing. The items were stolen when the thief may have knocked a hole in the wall. The pieces were works made of gold and encrusted with jewels. A spokesperson said that a suspect was seen fleeing the seen but guards did not intervene:

This will be an embarrassment for those who run the Palace Museum. 
One official has already said that there was a lapse in security. 
“Certainly we can only blame the fact that our work was not thorough enough if something like this can happen,” said official Feng Nai’en at a news conference. 
An investigation has begun to see where improvements can be made and the museum is checking to see if any other objects have been taken. 
Perhaps more embarrassing though is the fact that these items were on loan from Liangyicang, a private collection in Hong Kong. 
The Beijing News reported that the Hong Kong museum had not insured the items for as much as it could have because it believed they would be safe in Beijing. 
The Palace Museum is based within the Forbidden City, home to the country’s emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties. 
The complex is made up of courtyards, palaces and gardens. It became a museum in 1921 after the fall of the last emperor Puyi a decade earlier.
  1. Michael Bristow, Rare theft from Forbidden City, BBC, May 11, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13356725 (last visited May 12, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

China Wants its Rabbit and Rat Back

China looks to be redoubling its efforts to repatriate the bronzes from the Summer Palace, enlisting Jackie Chan, erecting a statue of Victor Hugo who decried the looting in 1860, and circulating a petition.

From AFP:

China has renewed a call for the return of relics looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing 150 years ago — an act seen as a cause of national humiliation at the hands of Western armies.

The Yuanmingyuan, a summer resort garden for the emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), was pillaged by a joint British and French military expedition during the second Opium War on October 18-19, 1860.

Cultural officials have urged private collectors in China to forgo profits from the antiquities trade and return the looted relics, the China Daily reported Tuesday.

The Yuanmingyuan park authority has also called on museums to return such items, and for a boycott on auctions featuring relics, the Global Times added. . . .

“At least 1.5 million relics from the Yuanmingyuan have either been looted or otherwise lost over the years,” the China Daily quoted Chen Mingjie, head of the Yuanmingyuan park administration, as saying.

Xinhua news agency, citing the UN cultural body UNESCO, said some 1.64 million Chinese relics are housed in more than 200 museums in 47 countries, some of which are believed to have been looted from the Yuanmingyuan.

In recent years, cultural relic experts from China have sought to categorise and bring back looted Chinese antiquities, but their efforts have been waylaid by legal and historical obstacles, the China Daily said.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com