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November 25, 2010

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The art of knowing when to buy

CHINA'S autumn auctions show a rather voracious appetite for ancient pieces. Art experts and collectors believe prices have further room to rise as some investors look for new ways to offset rising inflation. Wang Jie reports.

It's another new record.

At China Guardian's autumn auction last Saturday in Beijing, a hand scroll script sold for a staggering 308 million yuan (US$46.4 million).

The script was created by Wang Xizhi (303-361), a master calligrapher from the Jin Dynasty (265-420), and features only 41 characters.

In the Chinese mainland art market, the price of Wang's rare script was second only to calligrapher Huang Tingjian (1045-1105)'s hand scroll "Pillar Ming," purchased for 436.8 million yuan last year. The 8.24-meter-long scroll features about 600 characters.

"We had estimated Wang's script would fetch around 100 million yuan," says Deng Jing, spokeswoman for China Guardian. "But this was far beyond our expectations. Obviously, this is a stunning result."

Apart from Wang's scroll, the China Guardian autumn auction has also seen a breakthrough in sales of ancient Chinese furniture. One piece of furniture from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) sold for 39.76 million yuan, the most expensive piece of ancient Chinese furniture on record.

A traditional ink-wash painting created by Li Keran (1907-1989) auctioned for 107.5 million yuan, setting an auction record for traditional ink-wash paintings.

The total trade deal for China Guardian's autumn auction this year reached 4.13 billion yuan, breaking the record for any single seasonal auction in China.

"While it may be hard to believe, more ancient Chinese paintings and calligraphy scrolls will sell for over 100 million yuan in the future," Deng says.

This year's autumn auction will break the record set at the spring auction, where art deals totaled 20 billion yuan.

Art experts believe even more money will enter the art market as investors look for new ways to beat inflation.

"Art, especially rare art, is considered another way to offset inflation," says a local collector who refused to be identified. "I think the price of 'best of best' in art still has space to rise in the following years."

According to this collector, what to buy and the ability to pay is crucial to his art investment strategy.

"It would be foolish to think there is gold everywhere in the art market," he says.

"Finding the right piece is not easy. It requires a systematic study of the artist and the piece's past record, whether in the East or West. But never think you are the smartest one because there will always be someone competing for the same piece, which might result in the price escalating."

A solid base of knowledge and an acute eye also help.

"Compared with Chinese contemporary artwork, I am more optimistic about ancient Chinese artwork, such as calligraphy, paintings and furniture," the collector says. "Since these can no longer be produced, it adds to the rarity. This, of course, adds to its value."

Dong Guoqing, director of the Beijing Council auction house, agrees.

"In recent days, many of our clients asked whether we have any elite artworks for the autumn auction, and some are really interested in purchasing some real good ancient pieces," Dong says.

Dong is optimistic about the auction house's autumn auction that will be held at Beijing International Hotel Convention Center from December 4 to 6. Nearly 1,400 art pieces with a total estimated value of 600 million yuan will go under the hammer.

"The size of the art market is much smaller than the stock and property markets, so it is not so sensitive toward economic fluctuations," Dong says.

"But in order to secure a healthy art market, I don't want to see the same art piece auctioned several times a year. After all, art is not something to be circulated."

Dong supports the idea that art collection should be motivated by passion rather than profit.

When talking about opportunities in the market, Dong suggests an ancient purple-clay tea pot, an ancient bronze warmer and some paintings created by modern masters.

"Today these are not the highlights at the auction and are overshadowed by ancient masterpieces," Dong says.

"But their prices will rise sharply in the following years when more people want to buy art either to offset inflation, as a new investment mode, or merely out of personal interest."


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