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June 25, 2011

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Chops, Moutai on the block

THERE'S no way Shanghai can compete with the big Beijing auction houses that just raked in nearly 16 billion yuan (US$2.42 billion) in the spring sales featuring major works of traditional Chinese ink-wash paintings and calligraphy.

Shanghai auction houses instead are going small and hoping to nurture new markets in chops or seals, ancient bronze mirrors, aged Moutai spirit and vintage French wine. Two auctions are coming up, one of them on Sunday.

Record after record is being broken as the Chinese art market booms once again. Of the nearly 16 billion yuan, Beijing Poly Auction took in 6.13 billion yuan; Guardian Auction House sales amounted to 5.32 billion yuan; Beijing Council Auction sold nearly 2 billion yuan in art: and the Beijing Han Hai Auction House earned 2.45 billion yuan.

The big houses sell spectacular masterpieces for astronomical sums and big collectors look to Beijing.

Since Shanghai cannot play that game, auction houses instead are turning to smaller objects with big potential: chops, ancient bronze mirrors, aged Moutai spirit and vintage French red wine, among other overlooked valuables.

Auction houses in Shanghai hope to nurture new categories at auction.

Duo Yun Xuan, China's first art auction house, will hold an auction specializing in chops from June 30 to July 1.

"The value (of chops) was undervalued for many years," says Yuan Huiming, who's in charge of the chop auction at Duo Yun Xuan. "But now the market seems to be kicking off, as more and more rich people are interested in it."

The value of a chop, a person's authorized seal or stamp, depends on the quality of the stone, the excellence of the carving and the fame of the user or the maker.

In 2006, one chop once used by Dr Sun Yat-sen was auctioned for 160,000 yuan; the same chop was sold at this spring's Council Auction in Beijing for 2.18 million yuan.

"This is a perfect example of the potential of chops in the future," Yuan says, adding that collectors are keen on chops made by Qi Baishi (1864-1957), Wu Changshuo (1844-1927) and Chen Julai (1905-1984), all masters of Chinese ink-wash painting.

Similarly, an auction of bronze mirrors and aged Moutai and red wine are among the upcoming sales of Shanghai Hosane Auction House.

Nearly 100 bronze mirrors dating from the Warring States Period (476-221 BC) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) reflect changing art and sensibilities over time.

A new highlight is aged Moutai, China's most famous spirit made of fermented sorghum and wheat. Drinking Moutai, named after a town in Guizhou Province, is a tradition at festive occasions, including official banquets. It is considered the national drink.

Moutai, commonly 55 proof, has been turning up at auction in recent years. Before being sold, it is usually aged for at least four years.

"Moutai has a unique history in China," says Zhao Yong, director of the Shanghai Hosane Auction House. "Due to its rarity and quality, Moutai has been considered the best spirit in China. In the past, the Chinese people gave Moutai as gifts to newly weds, yet some families treasured the spirit and preserved it as a special memory."

Saving the Moutai instead of drinking it has paid off.

Early this year a bottle of Moutai produced in 1985 was auctioned for 400,000 yuan. When it was first sold it was priced at only 7.5 yuan.

One Moutai produced in 1972, which was only used for official banquets at the Great Hall of the People, is expected to fetch around one million yuan.

Besides Moutai, one bottle of Lafite produced in 1929 will appear at the auction, plus some other wines produced in 1970s and 1980s.

"I think that the auction of wine really broadens the scope of the collection, especially for ordinary people," Zhao says.

Hosane Auction House

For spirits

Date: Today, 6pm (Moutai); Tomorrow, 6:30pm (wine)

For bronze mirrors

Date: Today-tomorrow, 10am-6pm (preview); June 27, 12:45pm (auction)

Venue: Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, 1376 Nanjing Road W.

Duo Yun Xuan Auction

Date: June 30-July 1, 5pm (preview); July 2-4, 9am (auction)

Venue: 2/F, Four Seasons Hotel, 500 Weihai Rd


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