META-MUSEUM: CHINESE ART MARKET SLUMPS; CHINESE EXPORT SILVER DOESN’T! 中国艺术市场衰落; 中国出口银不!

CHINESE ART MARKET SLUMPS; CHINESE EXPORT SILVER DOESN’T!  

                                                                                                                                                  中国艺术市场衰落; 中国出口银不!

 

Market values is not something I’m prone to write about but the news out of TEFAF yesterday that the Chinese art market had slumped by 24% [$13.8billion] should not be a surprise. We are, after all, mainly talking about the contemporary art market and this was for sure a phenomenon waiting for a serious correction – for correction is what the decline represents.

 The rise in the affluent middle class in China is staggering by western standards, as is the amount of wealth being accumulated. However, as with all newly acquired wealth, at some point in time euphoria has to give way to common sense and that can only be best represented by a reasonably bankable robust investment prospect.

Cutshing teaset

It is often called crass by some that highly crafted antique silver is to some extent underwritten by the value of it as a raw commodity, it is probably that very inherent value that makes it attractive to collectors. But even with this potential in-built stabiliser, we are witness today to extraordinary amounts of fine Georgian and Victorian British, American and European silver being confined to scrap; such is the world of austerity we live in. Yet one antique silver category bucks this trend time after time; Chinese Export Silver. To understand why, we need to look back over the 1200 year love affair the Chinese have had with silver. No other nation in the world bought such vast quantities of it for centuries and no other nation based its economy successfully on silver for such an extended period. This obsession also was responsible for creating wealth in some western countries that might otherwise have remained backwater economies; Spain being a prime example.

Investors in China are buying more raw silver as the world’s second largest economy itself slowed for a seventh quarter. Silver climbed 15% in 2012 and to date in 2013 almost 30%. The demand for silver in China is forecast to exceed 10% this year with much of this demand fueled by investors seeking to preserve wealth. History repeats itself in the very country that has historically always looked to silver as a safe haven. Until around 1750, Chinaʼs demand for silver served as the engine for world trade! In 1793, China’s silver reserve was equivalent in todayʼs values of £29.5 billion. The amount of silver pouring into the Ming treasury was in the region of a staggering $190 billion in todayʼs values. The Ming dynasty was responsible for over 30% of the entire worldʼs GDP. Today Chinese investors want hard assets such as silver, especially when it is cheaper than gold and, more importantly, requires less funding.

Chinese Export Silver 18th century casket

Although the buoyancy of Chinese Export Silver as an antique silver category is due in the main to Chinese buyers, as a silver category it has a long way yet to go to gain its deserved recognition both in China and the West. In fact, it is still often rejected by western silver collectors  and experts as being inferior. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Gothic K Goblet

In the mainstream art market we find Zang Daqian rivalling Picasso, Warhol and Richter in the auction rooms achieving hammer values that defy most glass ceilings. Chinese Export Silver has also had its moments in American and European auction houses, but it is not outlandish to believe that the day isn’t far away where makers such as Cutshing, and Khecheong will regularly challenge work by Paul Storr and Paul Revere.

As my research into the history of Chinese Export Silver gets deeper and deeper into the subject, I am constantly astounded at not only the extraordinary items I discover, but also the quantity. True, all silver categories have their masterpieces and they their mediocrities and this is also true of Chinese Export Silver. The quantity and the quality of master works is, to use a modernism, mind blowing! I also cannot think of another antique silver category that has such a diverse and long history attached to it; No other important silver category was created as a direct result of political history and protectionism born out of introspection. This presents to the world a silver category that not only excites in terms of its levels of artistry but it also presents a silver category that in itself is a timeline of intriguing and highly complex Chinese history and culture. The west hasn’t yet fully realised this, neither have the Chinese.

Nobody really knows how much Chinese Export Silver is out there. When Crosby Forbes first wrote about it back in the 1960’s he believed there were only 2000 pieces left. He later upped that to 10,000. The reality is it is probably most likely to be in the tens of thousands, if not more. As awareness grows, I am confident far more of it will be finally brought to light.

Lastly, we are probably still left with the conundrum whether high values at auction demean the artistic merit of an object. That’s a hard act to fathom; my own view is that in the long term it probably keeps an object in the world of the here and now, rather than the hungry jaws of the scrap furnaces. Preservation at any cost is probably preferable to loss.

CES.com Red Flash

Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research. The 2nd Edition of his Catalogue of Chinese Export Silver Makers’ Marks will be launched online end March/early April 2013 and will be the largest ever resource of marks, containing 4 times as many makers’ marks as Crosby Forbes’ work and twice as many as John Devereux Kernan’s 1985 work

© 2013, Adrien von Ferscht. All rights reserved.

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