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December 19, 2011

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Filtering out fakes at art auctions

A Beijing auction house famous for providing clear provenance and weeding out fakes has made an excellent showing in its debut in Shanghai late last month where the auction scene is usually sluggish compared with the capital city.

Shanghai's auction market received a surprising shot in the arm when Beijing-based Rongbaozhai, a 300-year-old art dealership, raised 810 million yuan (US$127 million) in its autumn auction.

The auction house is famous for providing clear provenance of works offered for sale - an important factor since there are many fakes and suspicious pieces in the Chinese auction market, according to many experts.

The outcome is also considered a stimulus to the national auction market.

China Guardian Auction House, the first to auction in the autumn season, reported that its proceeds had decreased by almost 30 percent from last year. So Rongbaozhai's sale in Shanghai took many people by surprise.

"Even the Big Brother (China Guardian) didn't have a good beginning, so how could we be optimistic about succeeding auctions?" asked Dong Guoqiang, director of the Council Auction House in Beijing. "Some said that the winter of the art auction market was about to arrive."

The worry was unnecessary.

Total autumn sales by Council Auction House exceeded 1.81 billion yuan last month.

A calligraphy scroll from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) was even sold for around 100 million yuan.

Likewise Beijing Poly Auction House reported autumn proceeds at 4.92 billion yuan. A traditional ink-wash painting by Xu Beihong set a world record at 266.8 million yuan.

"The truth that 'the best of the best' could never disappoint both sellers and buyers was again demonstrated," veteran art critic Zhan Hao says. "When there was talk of a downward turn in autumn, some buyers would expect to purchase quality works at below market price."

Unlike the fever of this year's spring auction, when people joked that "even a cabbage" could sell, the mood for the autumn auctions has been more realistic.

The 22 items from the Rongbaozhai collection were all sold.

"Every comer knew its value. Due to the house's fame and history, items from its collection are guaranteed as authentic in the market," Zhan adds.

That's why Shanghai-based Hosane Auction House is keen on providing works with a clear provenance.

Clear provenance is the biggest issues in the domestic auction market because there are so many fakes. Without it, authentication and appraisal are difficult and since several experts may have different judgments on the same work.

"There's no single rule or principle for determining authenticity," Dong says. "It's based on experience and intuition, without clear provenance."

For this reason Hosane Auction House has a special section of works provided exclusively by the artist's family, says Sun Xiaotong, a veteran at Hosane. It has offered works provided by the families of Zhang Chongren, Zhou Bichu and Guan Zilan.

Finding good pieces in the hands of an artist's family is becoming a trend among auction houses in China.

"This summer, I went to San Francisco three times just for one piece," Dong Guoqiang from Council Auction House says, citing the calligraphy scroll from the Yuan Dynasty later sold for 100 million yuan. "When the descendants approached me, the elderly lady obviously had no idea of its value. She asked if was worth US$100,000."

"Providing clear provenance is how the name of Rongbaozhai worked successfully in Shanghai," Dong says.

To eliminate fakes at its sales, the newly established Justice Auction House recently announced more stringent supervision. It has appointed a particular appraisal center and accounting firm for evaluation and appraisal, and also works with a local law firm and a mortgage company.

After being evaluated by the appraisal center, all the artworks to be sold at Justice Auction can be mortgaged for cash at the appointed mortgage company.

"We are still experimenting with feasibility," says Jin Yiming, the person in charge of the process, at the new auction house.

Upcoming auctions by Hosane Auction House

Date: December 19 (preview); December 19-21 (auction)

Venue: Jianguo Hotel, 439 Caoxi Rd N.


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