Brian's Blogs

Why Bother with the National Museum?

I love auctions. Whenever I go back to the UK for a break from my globe trotting, I invariably visit an auction house in my home town that holds an auction once a week. It sells an awful lot of tat along with some really classy pieces; but the excitement is in not knowing what you are going to discover until you actually get there and take a close look.

So when I hear that a major auction is about to take place in Beijing, I can’t wait to go take a look. The 33rd (or ‘33th’ as it is written up) China Guardian Quarterly Auctions: Chinese Painting & Calligraphy, porcelain and works of art; rare books and manuscripts is holding a three day preview prior to three full days of auction in the Conference Centre of the Beijing International Hotel, which can be found on Jianguomenneijie, not a stone’s throw from Beijing Railway Station.

Outside are two of my favourite stone lions in Beijing – lions with attitude, I always think!

A large red banner stretches across the entrance foyer, and it is immediately clear that this is no small auction. The conference centre, which is stuffed full of massive conference rooms, is almost entirely taken up with sale pieces. And none of your tat that can be found in my home town auction house. For this auction, anyone even thinking of making a bid must first lay down 500,000 kwai – or around £50,000 – before being allowed to do so!

This conference centre oozes with class. You can’t escape it. It’s a wonderful place. Hiding behind the red-pink banner, for instance, is a pair of huge wooden carved elephants. Who couldn’t fall in love with them on first sight?

There are also high-end furniture shops on the ground floor, one of which displays this wonderful display case in its main window. A stunning piece which, I fear, I will never be able to afford. <sigh>

But enough of the centre itself. The auction is being held by China Guardian Auctions Co, the second-biggest auctioneer on the Chinese mainland and the world's fourth largest art auction house – and it has gained a reputation as the most professional of all China's big auction houses. And that means it is BIG business!

The value of works sold at auction in China has been surging for three years. In 2011, the country passed the United States as the world's biggest market for art and antiques, capturing an estimated 30 percent of the world total, up from 23 percent a year earlier. Last year, the 20-year-old company sold over 22,000 items in four auctions, generating 51.62 billion kwai – or $8.3 billion, including the sale of Chinese painter Li Keran's landscape Shao Shan for 1.24 billion kwai.

Of course, it should be pointed out that among other restrictions, Chinese law forbids foreign auction houses from selling "cultural relics" that date back earlier than 1949, which form a significant part of the Chinese art market; so it is hardly surprising that the home grown auction houses are doing so well.

Today’s auction display features loads of jade, vases, calligraphy, paintings, rare books, and goodness knows what else stuffed into separate conference rooms that just seem to go on for ever.

I soon find out that photography isn’t allowed – and there are numerous security guards and cameras everywhere to make sure that everyone behaves themselves – which is a pity as some of the pieces are extremely beautiful. I pretend to make a call on my iPhone and press the camera shutter surreptitiously. Hmm not a great photograph!

I wander into the jade display room where there are probably more security guards and auction display personnel than there are potential punters. You see an item you like, you point to it, make a grunt or three and the happy chappy places it onto a mat for you to ogle at (making damned sure you don’t drop the wretched thing if you don’t want to bankrupt yourself in one fell swoop) after which it is placed back onto its (filthy dirty) glass shelf waiting for another potential buyer to pass by.

I have to settle for some of the official photographs off the official website to show the kind of thing I am talking about… like this white jade carving, 7.5cm in height, which we learn was made in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). There is no reserve price on it. I wonder what it will fetch though; almost certainly much more than my annual salary.

Some of the furniture also catches my eye – such as this lacquered shrine with four pillars which is over a metre wide and which must have graced the furnishings of some super-rich family in days of yesteryear.

The rare books room looks much like you would expect – piles and piles of rare books – not a lot to photograph there. And then I am transported into a room full of paintings and scrolls and before I know it I have without a thought reached for my iPhone and snapped a picture … and no one seems to give a damn.

This little horse is expected to fetch around 500,000 kwai – or £50,000 … he’s cute, but I don’t think I would part with so many smackeroonies for him…

This one is apparently worth a similar amount, but again I think I could put my hard earned kwai to better use…

A security guard comes over and politely points to one of many signs hung up at numerous vantage points. Naughty Brian! I weigh up whether it is worth pointing out that there is nothing mentioning an iPhone 5, but think better of it. A smile, a shrug of the shoulders (as if to say what on earth do they expect of a laowai), a quick nod and I move on …

… to these cute little birdies.

And then around another corner to a picture that I fall in love with on first sight. OK, so it helps that I was born in the year of the tiger, but this one is gorgeous. Hmmm … expected selling price 700,000 kwai? Well, maybe not!

I just have to ask someone, though, to take my picture with Mr Tiger and, perhaps because I am a laowai, no security guard comes running over to point out the error of my (our) ways. The implication is clear – if you want to take pictures of works of art, get someone to pose and then turn the camera slightly away and focus on the piece of art. Works a treat!

As a bonus, the picture next door to Mr Tiger is a cute little kitten.

And while we’re revelling in such feisty furry felines I discover yet more tiggies lurking menacingly in little alcoves…

while this one has a security guard standing all of two metres away – but he doesn’t appear too worried about my snapping away…

While on the subject of animals, this red dragon fly reminds me of the dragon flies that used to drink from the swimming pool in Riyadh when I was working in Saudi Arabia…

while this blue stick insect is just too cute for words! A stick insect with attitude? Well that has to be a first!

The shape of these fish reminds me of an almond croissant I ate recently in Dubai.

There are loads of hanging scroll paintings, some of which are expected to go for huge sums of money. I dare not point out to anyone (assuming that they would understand me, that is) that there’s a shop selling such things near to Xiangshan Park (香山公园) – otherwise known as Fragrant Hills Park – for 25 kwai each. (Is your favourite blogger a philistine or what?)

Mind you that aforementioned shop – to my certain knowledge – does not have scrolls featuring animals such as this (can anyone tell me what kind of a creature it is BTW?)

Round another corner is a display of fans – which reminds me of the fan museum I visited not so long back in Shanghai. The guards here are much more officious, though, and once again the camera has to be put away.

So I am not able to take pictures of the calligraphy displays – though to my untutored self, I’m not sure I could really be relied upon to give an opinion one way or the other on whether one is a good specimen or not.

But as I enter the area devoted to Mao era pictures, security once again appears to lapse and I snap away before I am spotted on the dozens of security cameras sprouting out of every corner.

I’m sure I have seen these pieces many times before; but maybe they are the originals? I have no idea. And there’s no guide price to give an indication of their authenticity.

It’s been a good morning and the time has flown past.

Outside in the subway passage under Jianguomenneijie, no one appears in the slightest bit interested in the tat being sold by a street seller. Maybe the passers by have been elevated by the quality of what they have seen inside the conference centre.

It sure makes one wonder, though, why anyone would bother visiting the National Museum, when you can see hugely better artefacts here – and which you are even allowed to touch into the bargain! Mind you, you can take photographs at the Museum, I guess – if you can find anything that really catches your eye.

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