What can Record Prices From China Say About the Market for American Antiques?

By Hoomivas (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

The recent sale of a mid-18th century Qing dynasty vase for $68 million to a Chinese buyer is appearing with some frequency in the media. It’s also the latest in a long list of high-price heirlooms that have headed back to China. I’ve had some success selling items with Chinese origins, although much less significant, that have headed back to China.

A Decade or more ago if an expert in Chinese studies was asked what were the top ten things consumers in the country were fond of, the answer would have been unlikely to include antiques. Now even some items with minimal significance are selling for lots of money. Why is this and what can it tell us about the market for American antiques?

Here are several lines from an article that appeared today on CNN.com

Flush with cash, these buyers now consider antique collecting a status symbol and a source of national pride.

“Patriotism and antique collecting are now tightly linked,” adds Gong Jisui, a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. “Collectors are happy to identify themselves as patriotic.”

It’s not surprising: antiques have traditionally been prized possessions among wealthy Chinese families. China’s nouveau riche entrepreneurs have now amassed great wealth and are reverting to old ways.

First, national pride seems to be the theme that occurs most often, not only in this article, but in a number of recent articles on the market for Chinese antiquities. More than ever, in recent memory anyway, people in China have disposable income and they are proud of living in China.

Thinking back on the heights in the American antique market, periods of relative strength were times when we felt good about the United States. The 1920s, the 1960s, as well as the mid 80s and 90s were all periods when national pride and economic prospects were in plentiful supply and the market for antiques was good.

Moreover there seems to be a somewhat universal point in time when dealers say the market for antiques and collectibles dropped off in the U.S. and that was a date that’s used for a lot of things, September 11, 2001. Certainly the events of that day can be seen as a kick to national pride, and a kick that we’ve yet been able to recover from.

The phenomena in the third quote can also be used to compare markets in the U.S. in China. In the case of the U.S., I’m not sure we’re at a point where the wealthy are looked to with any degree of reverence. Certainly there are enough scandals in the news to influence that in the negative. The wealthy who are somewhat revered, Warren Buffet for example, are revered in part for living a simple, no-nonsense life, not for amassing large collections. The ones who do collect antiques aren’t widely known to do so, but the bulk are known for collecting contemporary and modern art.  And that’s being collected in part because its being looked at for its investment value, certainly not as often because love of the objects or of pride in the international marketplace.

The prevalence for American modern and contemporary art also feeds into the vicious cycle of the international art market. America had fine artists and craftsmen before 1940, but it was after that when the country was a strong permanent player on the world stage (although you could argue this date to be somewhere post WWI), and items produced or created after that time are the ones with the most international appeal. Items made before that time do not and probably will not have significant international appeal and the market for them won’t return until the United States has both recovered economically and regains a sense of national pride.

You might say the same thing about the antiquities from China, and in one sense you would be right. The market for these items is based largely on the strength of the Chinese economy and national pride there. It’s not rooted in international appeal for these products. An important difference, however which may or may not come into play is that China has both ethnic and national identities, where the U.S. only has a national identity. Moreover as the population in the U.S. becomes more diverse and as a percentage the people with European and in some cases African ancestry become a smaller percentage of the population, the connection with items from 1750-1900 is also minimized and thus its demand is minimized. That said, I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that the newest immigrants and their children will never feel a connection to American antiquities. It’s just not going to happen overnight.

I know you may be looking for a solution, and I’m not sure there is one ready-made. There’s lots of indication of urgency floating around out there, and ideas from forming an association to having a luxury conference on antiques. Both are good ideas worth implementing, but in the end may only nip at the heels of our problem.

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Eric Miller is a web publisher, writer and show promoter. He is a partner in Stripe Specialty Media and Vintage Promotions, LLC which produces the Dallas Vintage Clothing and Jewelry Show, the Texas Art Collector Show and Sale, Vintage Garage Chicago and other events. Eric's public relations work has resulted in placements in the Boston Globe, Maine Antiques Digest, Antiques and the Arts, Antique Trader, the New York Post and elsewhere. His articles have appeared in publications including San Francisco Downtown, InPittsburgh and The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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