November 18, 2015

Price and Provenance

Record prices were achieved at auctions last week with Chinese billionaires leading the way.

On the 11th of November, a Hong Kong tycoon Joseph Lau bought an exceptional 12 carat blue diamond, known as the Blue Moon for CHF 48.634 /US$ 48.5 million at Sotheby’s in Geneva, the highest price ever paid for a gemstone at auction, adding to his already large collection of art, jewellery and fine wines. 

On the 9th of November, Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couché was sold in New York for US$ 170.4 million, achieving a record for the hapless artist ranking in the top ten list of the most expensive paintings ever sold.  The name of the bidder from China was revealed to be Liu Yiqian, a Shanghai billionaire collector, who is already famous for his Ming Dynasty “Chicken Cup” bought for HK$ 281.24 million / US$36.05 million  in April 2014, the highest price ever paid for Chinese porcelain at an auction. 

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), ‘Nu couché, painted in 1917-18

Modigliani was the artist of the week. Only a few days earlier on 4th November, another painting by Modigliani Paulette Jourdain was sold for US$ 42.8 million, well above its estimate, at Sotheby’s otherwise lacklustre sale of the collection of its former owner A. Alfred Taubman. Sotheby´s identified the buyer as a private Asian collector. 

Before these trophy items go behind the thick security doors, residents and visitors in Hong Kong had a chance to inspect them in person a month earlier together with other luxury collectables, exhibited as part of the auction houses’ highlight tours to stimulate the region’s increasingly eclectic taste in art. The costly campaign of the rivalling auction houses probably paid off. 

Anyone who fancies a Modigliani nude, yet are without the wherewithal needed, can still decorate their walls with a lookalike copy, skilfully handmade in Southern China. The chance that your friends may spot it as a reproduction is probably about 10%, as with the case of the fresh copy of the 18th century portrait Young Woman by Jean-Honoré Fragonard of bought online for GBP£ 70 for the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s project ‘Made in China’ project earlier this year. Even the Gallery’s curators were marvelled at the skill of the Chinese copyist although they insist that we should be able to easily spot the difference with closer scrutiny. 

But can we really?

It is a bitter fact that many large-scale conspiracies such as Beltracchi and Knoedler/Pei-Shen Quian were not uncovered for more than a decade. In China, it took nearly 10 years until someone eventually spotted at a Hong Kong auction house that a former librarian, Xiao Yuan, stole 143 Chinese master paintings from the library of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and replaced them with his copies. His copies were again substituted for further fakes. 

Living artists’ works can also be copied. Recently a Chinese auction house withdrew a living artist’s painting from its sale in Hong Kong after the artist himself challenged the authenticity of the work, which was presumed to be destroyed in 1989 and allegedly repainted in 1992, according to the very artist’s letter provided by the seller. As demonstrated in this case, it can be difficult to prove authenticity even for contemporary art in the Chinese art system, where credible documentation is often not in place. The distinction between a copy and a forgery is not fully recognised in the local culture, nor is the importance of a work's collection history, often referred to as an artwork's provenance. As demonstrated in the recently concluded exhibition “Copyleft Appropriation Art in China” at Power Station of Art in Shanghai, the concept of appropriation may be very different between China and the West. 

The free port that is Hong Kong has become one of the world’s largest art marketplaces and is consolidating its status as the region’s main art hub with the expected opening in 2019 of an iconic new public museum M+. Overshadowing the luminosity, Hong Kong also has a reputation as a playground for the illicit trading of counterfeits and smuggled artworks, many of which are transported in bulk from Mainland China. 

Recognising this growing issue, one which has been undermining the credibility and further development of the region’s art market, a group of experts with respective backgrounds in art, insurance, forensics, crime prevention, security and commercial risk management founded a local art risk consultancy TrackArt in 2011. Based in Hong Kong, it is the first and, currently, only provider of forensic DNA coding services for artworks in Asia. 

Together with cataloguing and recovery assistance services, TrackArt’s DNA coding secures the artwork’s onwards chain of provenance and validates future identification, which works most effectively in the primary market if applied in the artist’s studio. Using licenced technology from a UK technology partner, TrackArt offers more than one format of DNA suitable for various types of materials and surfaces of paintings, works on paper, antiquities, ceramics, etc. 

It’s high time the art market learnt the importance of securing the provenance of artworks, both now and in the future.

Here is a link to TrackArt’s website

(Selected information sources)

Dulwich Picture Gallery ‘Made in China’ Project

Chinese curator’s forgery

Geng Jianyi’s claim

Shanghai’s Power Station of Art’s current exhibition, Copyleft

Is it plagiarism or is it ‘shanzhai


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