The best place to find Chinese antiques isn’t China. It’s the U.S.
In the world-wide hunt to discover overlooked art trophies to resell to collectors of Asian art, dealers and auctioneers say the first spot they’re eyeing is the American mantelpiece. Carried here by centuries of missionaries, wealthy collectors, importers and immigrants, Chinese artifacts have settled and resurfaced throughout the U.S. in huge numbers compared with the scant amount that remain in China following Mao Zedong’s relic-smashing Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. Now, in a topsy-turvy twist on the global art market, dealers say they’re locating museum-quality Chinese artworks sitting, sometimes little-noticed, in farms in Vermont, shotgun houses in New Orleans and ranches in Montana and Colorado.
Two years ago, Sotheby’s discovered a rare, 1,000-year-old white bowl from the Song dynasty sitting on the mantel of a family home in upstate New York. The amateur collectors had paid $3 for the 5-inch-wide bowl at a garage sale. Sotheby’s resold it on the family’s behalf to London dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi for $2.2 million. In recent years, Christie’s said it has reaped millions reselling Chinese imperial vases that had been converted into lamps and a Yuan-era jar being used as an umbrella stand, the latter of which resold for $27.6 million. “That’s part of the allure of the U.S.,” said Michael Bass, Christie’s international senior specialist for Chinese art. “We all know there’s hidden treasure.”
With China’s domestic marketplace bedeviled by fakes, Asian clients have come to trust the authenticity of pieces being sold by U.S. collectors, according to David Yu, director of international business development for Beijing-based auction house China Guardian. What’s more, Mr. Yu said mainland buyers often pay a premium for U.S.-sourced work.Starting March 15, the art market’s latest scouring will get tested during New York’s weeklong round of major Asian art sales. U.S. sellers are supplying 80% of Christie’s offerings of neolithic Chinese bronzes, jade figurines, hardwood furniture and porcelain vases. Sotheby’s said the majority of its March auction offerings were also consigned stateside.
Scholarship plays a role. During the second-half of the 20th century when academic study of art was largely forbidden in China, Mr. Yu said a generation of professors and amateur scholars in the U.S. took up the charge and now boast some of the category’s most in-depth catalogs and studies on Chinese art. Baltimore’s International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, a group of private collectors, remains the “best in the world,” he said. And the world’s top private collection of Chinese hardwood furniture, or “huanghuali,” is in Boston as part of the collection of Edward C. Johnson II, founder of Fidelity Investments. Mr. Yu said U.S. scholars have even coined terms to describe Chinese art, like huanghuali, that weren’t indigenous to Chinese culture but are now used by collectors everywhere. As a result, Mr. Yu said his team knows they have a greater chance of bumping into “systematic and better maintained” collections in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world, he added.