Society

Red art now in the black

A revolution in the art world

Coining it: Communist-era collectables are now big business

Around 15 years ago Marc Faber began to accumulate memorabilia from ‘red’ China. The stuff was virtually worthless at the time but Faber – who is a well known investor – reasoned that the memorabilia would one day surge in value. Although ubiquitous during the Cultural Revolution – when there were several hundred million Mao badges in circulation – these propaganda artifacts were often thrown away during the Deng Xiaoping reform era.

Over time Faber amassed 330,000 Mao badges and 3,000 posters, as well as many paintings. He forecast that they would become scarce, and a market for them would develop as collectors’ items.

Well, that time seems to have arrived and Faber’s investment instincts have been vindicated. What used to pass for propaganda is now very much in vogue as ‘red art’, especially in the 60th anniversary year of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

That much became clear at a recent auction of the ‘red’ oil painting, Nanniwan.

The painting – which features a revolutionary scene from the Nanniwan hills – was originally part of the collection of the People’s Revolution Military Museum. It is regarded as perhaps the leading work of ‘socialist Chinese realism’ by painter Jin Zhilin.

Paintings of this genre take their inspiration from revolutionary scenes of the past, and were intended as a source of proletarian inspiration.

As such, the art had a clear political edge. Jin himself is said to have taken guidance from Wang Zhen – a former general, and one of the ‘Eight Immortals’ of China’s Communist Party, for the Nanniwan scene.

With these exemplary credentials, it is hardly surprising that the bidding for the work was fierce. Offers started at Rmb8 million ($1.16 million) with the hammer falling for a final time at Rmb13.44 million.

The winning bidder was none other than Cai Mingchao, who infuriated Christie’s (see WiC4) by making the winning bid for two controversial bronze animal heads and then reneging on it.

Cai was viewed as a national hero at the time for scuppering the auction (many Chinese feel the ‘stolen’ sculptures should be returned to a Chinese museum).

This time round, though, Cai’s bid was very much for real. “Payment and shipment will be completed in a week,” he informed reporters.

The Jinan Daily explains that revolutionary ‘red’ art benefits from its “historical value” and the fact that there are few pieces in circulation.

This gives it an edge over the contemporary Chinese art market at the moment, which has lost value recently as a result of the financial crisis and a relative abundance of supply.

According to insiders at the auction firms, it’s now difficult to collect red classical oil paintings.

The canvases – which were typically painted between 1949 and 1980 – were reasonably cheap to buy up until six or seven years ago, comments Liu Tongtong, the artistic director of the Zhongding Auction firm.

But today the bulk of the works remain in museums, rather than in private hands. Those collectors who were savvy enough to buy them earlier now treasure them and are unwilling to sell.

Further fuelling the red art hype was a sale of Shen Jiawei’s Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland, which attracted 20 bids in the Guardian Spring Auction, eventually fetching Rmb7.95 million.

However, what will please Faber is that it’s not just the paintings that are commanding high prices.

The People’s Daily reckons that collections of ‘red’ items are seeing a “torrent” of interest and could double in value by October 1, when the 60th anniversary of the revolution is celebrated.

The newspaper cites the example of the Communist Childrens’ Reading Book, a set of eight volumes produced from 1934, which were bought recently by an anonymous ‘red’ collector for Rmb33,200.

Other red collectables include photos, newspapers, magazines, Little Red Books, movie posters, Red Guard armbands, and, of course, those Mao badges.

The items all have an association with a ‘bygone’ era for many Chinese.

In fact, bygone enough for these icons of communism to be traded around in a rampantly capitalist way.

Just ask Marc Faber.


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