Art, some say, usually ends up being worth a lot more once the artist is dead. That is even more true when artists have been dead for a thousand years.
Nowhere was this more apparent than last week at an art auction in Beijing where a scroll of classical calligraphy dating back almost a millennium fetched Rmb436 million ($64 million).
The price appears to be the largest ever paid at auction for a single piece of Chinese art, says the Journal of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy. It is almost double the previous record for a Yuan Dynasty vase, which went for $34 million at an auction in London five years ago.
The calligraphy, titled Di Zhu Ming, was completed around 1095 by Huang Tingjian, a leading scholar and poet of the Song Dynasty. Previously it was owned by a private museum in Japan for decades, before being purchased by a collector from Taiwan.
The auction was held in early June by the Poly Group, which is one of the largest art auction houses in China. The buyer of the artwork remained anonymous.
“Only the Chinese can truly appreciate the spirit, the philosophy and historical importance of such classical Chinese paintings,” says Li Da, the general manager of Poly. “I feel classic Chinese art is still undervalued compared with the prices paid for Western paintings by artists like Picasso or Renoir.”
That may be about to change. In recent auctions, demand for classical paintings and calligraphy has been growing. In fact, they accounted for nearly 59% of the Top 100 Auction Sales of Chinese Fine Art last year, says a report published by Beijing-based Arton Art Market Monitoring Centre.
Art critics say China’s wealthier buyers are now snapping up antiques because the available market is finite, improving scarcity value. By contrast, contemporary paintings have continued to languish, even for top-notch artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi.
In traditional Chinese culture, calligraphy was considered a higher art form than painting or drawing. That’s because every stroke that goes into a character has to be perfect. According to one convention, “a dot should resemble a rock falling from a high cliff. A horizontal stroke should resemble a formation of cloud stretching 1,000 miles. A vertical stroke should resemble a dried vine stem a myriad years old.”
Moreover much can supposedly be inferred about a writer through his (or her) brushwork, including the state of their physical and spiritual health. This explains why experts say calligraphy is good for the mind. Tai chi masters also say that practising calligraphy is good for tai chi practice too. The smooth, continuous energy and concentration required for the brush-strokes is said to fit with tai chi postures.
In the past, Chinese politicians have used calligraphy to cement their authority. Book titles, building signs and newspaper mastheads have all featured inscriptions from politicians. The brush becomes the form by which they display their patronage, says Richard Kraus, author of Brushes with Power. Perhaps that’s why Premier Wen Jiabao is often photographed practising calligraphy or making gifts of characters that he has completed. And calligraphy has become a popular pastime for many businessmen too.
Chiang Jeongwen, a professor at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing, thinks that established business leaders use it to set themselves apart from “nouveau rich” newcomers.
“For successful people it’s very fashionable to talk about Chinese poetry and traditions,” Jia Linxie, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, told Reuters. “You can show deep down that, apart from your business success, you are deeply involved in Chinese culture”.
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