Letters from China: Two, Antiques Roadshow with a Sledge Hammer

With the fast pace of broken auction records for Chinese antiques and the wallets of rich Chinese fattening even faster, the whole nation is looking back at its culture with an unsurpassed passion. This is reflected in popular culture. China has its own “antiques roadshow” now, yet with a twist of entertainment more or less reflecting the fraught of rampant forgery problems. To attract a younger audience, a host invites three known experts and three pop stars such as singers or actresses to each episode. (Maybe Antiques Roadshow should think about a co-host series with Mark Wahlberg with Paris Hilton next time.)

Each series focuses on one particular type of Chinese antique such as Long Quan porcelain from the Song Dynasty. Three experts give a short lecture with an authentic object in view. Then three amateur collectors are invited to the stage in sequence to share their treasures in the same category, which they claim to be authentic.

First, the pop stars, with the help of the studio audience, will make their judgment based on their fresh lesson. Their comments are fun to watch, yet nevertheless naive and possibly incorrect. (Imagine Kanye West discussing Rookwood plaques!) Then the host, with the final written appraisal from the three experts, reads the result with a sledgehammer (which is called Hu Bao Chui, or hammer to protect authenticity). If the experts regard it as authentic, the collector will be rewarded a medal and perhaps no better PR than this show can be used to prove the authenticity of his object. However, if the experts regard it fake, the host smashes the object to pieces without mercy.

Wang Gang, the host of the current popular program “Tian Xia Shou Cang” (or All About Collecting) is a famous actor and serious collector himself. Past reports have shown pictures of his spacious apartment full of antiques that even American Boomers may regard as overdoing it. But Wang is actually a latecomer to the collecting field. In the beginning, he consulted Ma Weidou, the founder and curator of the GaunFu Museum for authentication. In his article, Weidou recalled that he had to persuade Wang out of buyer’s impetus when some objects at bargain prices looked dubious (in which even the expert cannot give a firm conclusion) , and instead guided him into focusing on Blue and White porcelain in Kangxi period, because the standardized authentication process has largely been approved in the trade. Wang, nevertheless, began reading related books and articles while gaining hands-on experience with the best expert in the field. (Imagine an average Joe goes onto American Pickers with Leigh Keno in Upstate New York!) Nowadays Wang is regarded as a celebrity collector or collector celebrity (depending on how many of his movies you have seen). At a stage, he is sharp and humorous, at ease when joking with pop stars yet serious when conversing with experts. Perhaps no other host than Wang can better make the program more entertaining yet still possess a certain degree of authority.

According to Bian Yiwen, the producer of the show, the mission of the program is Qu Wei Cun Zhen, or to eliminate forgery while preserving authenticity. Wang, in an interview, says that nowadays 95 percent of amateur collectors (in China) are dealing with objects, 95 percent of which are fake. The program has done free appraisals in the past in different metro areas and the turn-up ratio of authentic objects is less than 5 percent. He said: Most collectors enter the field for a treasure hunt, to score once and for all. This is not the right way. To collect is to be bewitched, to fall in love, to be obsessive, and to desire to explore the past. Collecting is not for everyone. You need all three: time, knowledge, and a deep pocket.

Yet, since it was launched on a Beijing TV Station, the program has been controversial as the hammer has smashed many objects brought to the studio. Some people think the final act, with its physical impact, unnecessarily hurts the enthusiasm of the ordinal collectors, if not destroys the dreams of the families. Others think too much time is given to gossiping of pop stars whose comments are not educational or informative. A few criticize the sledgehammer as an emblem of the program’s anxiety and insecurity to fight for the ratings– not much better than those treasure hunters who held high hope with their fake vases. (Why on earth does the show need a young lady holding a plate with the sledgehammer and walking to the host every time the final judgment is going to be pronounced? The answer: Some clothing company sponsors her beautiful Cheonsam.)

In a recent popular article “Heading To Highwood, Real Life Picker Gives Analysis of Popular Antiques TV Shows” , dealer American Rick Klass mentioned that the average value of the items brought to a typical Antiques Roadshow is around 14 dollars. The producer, nevertheless, only selects those jaw-dropping findings in the main program. It makes a perfect hair-raising one-hour show as treasures are exposed at a pace of every three minutes, yet the actual appraisers probably spend most of their time explaining (with a smile) the decorative virtues of prints, toys, or jewels that have little monetary value. Such an approach won’t work in China because collecting in China is not about differentiating high-end from low-end, not about defining antiques or collectibles. It is simply an excruciating practice of finding one authentic out of dozens of modern reproductions which just look or feel like the real thing.

The totally different approach in antiques education programs results deeply from the cultural difference between the east and the west. In the US, dealers and collectors are more positive and supportive. The anecdotes clips shown at the end of each Antiques Roadshow occasionally feature people discussing their mundane objects. They love them not because these objects own or hold values but because they are sentimental or are just simply beautiful. Among many vases that have been smashed by Wang, I can envision that many local decorators would love to have to give rooms a sense of oriental sensitivity. But in Asia, the culture is more rigorous about true or false. For most Asian collectors, the objects are either fantastic or worth nothing. There is a little gray area. In particular, younger Chinese grow up through quantified measures at every stage of their life. When a modern production vase is worth five dollars while a real one can fetch half a million, it will easily translate into a psyche of love or hate.

Geo asked me when such growth in Chinese antiques will be curbed? I do not know. There is no reason to suspect any fall in prices in the near future if China keeps its current GDP growth at such a stunning pace. Yet the TV show and the dramatic increase in Chinese antiques clearly indicate antiques collecting is still at its immature stage in China. Lesser works or even forgeries are common for all collectors, even the museums cannot be immune. One year ago, the Brooklyn Museum brought out the forgery objects in antiquity with authentic pieces for a thought-provoking show. We learn through collecting – accepting all the imperfections is part of it. If the provenance is dubious, it may not have its place in the living room, but certainly, at one time our mind has been intrigued by such an object.

When a nation looks back feverishly at its rich cultural heritage, it may get all the excitement as each individual object gets measured through monetary values. Perhaps there is a real danger ahead as one can easily forget to see the integrity of the whole cultural assets. And the culture itself refuses any possible way of quantification, it remains priceless.

If you are interested, below is a short video clip of the TV program. If you are not a Chinese language speaker, you may want to turn down the volume.

2 thoughts on “Letters from China: Two, Antiques Roadshow with a Sledge Hammer

  1. The Asian market certainly has been stellar as unheard of prices are achieved consistently. I do understand their desire to honor their culture and regain important pieces which had been lost to them, as they should. One does have to wonder where speculation plays into this though and whether the majority of works will be donated to museums or end up in warehouses.

    Oh, the game show… just say no. 🙂


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