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Ming vases

June 30, 2011

Apparently, the best place to buy antique art from China is Europe. More and more Chinese collectors are coming to London, Paris or Cologne to buy Chinese art at auction. Here they can be half-way sure it's authentic.

16th century Ming Dynasty porcelain wuchai from China
This Ming Dynasty vase from the 16th century is worth a trip to EuropeImage: AP

"Seven hundred, seven hundred fifty, for the second time."

Auctioneer Henrik Hanstein knocks with a small hammer on his desk, closing the sale of a Chinese ink painting with a red flower bough and cress. A collector from Shanghai has just bought it for 750 euros ($1,080).

Hanstein is surrounded by several black-and-white ink paintings from the Tang Dynasty, silver bowels with engravings, and 300-year-old plates. They fill the bright auction hall, waiting for their new owners.

It almost seems like a typical auction in Bangkok or Hong Kong. Only the German-speaking auctioneer and the logo "Lempertz" on his desk indicate that the event is actually taking place in Germany. Hanstein, executive director of the Cologne-based auction house, hosts an auction of Asian art once a year.

No fakes, please

Quality check in the auction house "Lempertz" in Cologne
Quality check: collectors don't like fakesImage: DW

"Nearly 95 percent of the bids and acceptances go to Chinese visitors," said Hanstein, who takes a personal interest in Chinese culture.

The art dealer explained that, during the communist period under Mao, many valuable artworks were transported out of China to spare them from destruction. "Today, the wealthy Chinese come to Europe in order to buy these objects back," he said.

Buying Asian art in Europe is also considered proof of authenticity and a guarantee for the value of the objects. "In China, there are many counterfeits, so art collectors can never be sure," added Hanstein.

Mister Meng (who didn't give his first name) has come from Beijing to Cologne, and not just for the obligatory photo in front of the Cologne Cathedral. He plans to take home a work by Chinese painter Huang Zhou, who became famous with his paintings of donkeys.

The owner of the painting, who is German, had met many artists on his travels to China and took back some of their work. "So you can say that he's a reliable source," said Meng, who considers himself an expert on the Chinese market for antiques.

Meng added that he knows how much people are willing to pay for paintings like those by artist Huang Zhou, so he is prepared to make higher bids than the German collectors in Cologne.

The new currency

Bidders in the auction house "Lempertz" in Cologne
Bidding is also a game of speed and strategyImage: DW

But Meng is not the only who has his eye on Huang Zhou's picture of two girls with a herd of donkeys. Other collectors visiting from Asia place even higher bids.

"It's mine!" a young lady shouts. Without batting an eye, she has just paid 190,000 euros for the one-square-meter ink painting - but it's not her own money. With a satisfied smile she congratulates the real buyer via cell phone.

In Europe, there are more and more buyers like her who bid on commission, Meng explained. The rich Chinese do not have the time or they don't want to be seen in public, he said, so they send English-speaking commissioners to the auctions in London, Paris, or Cologne.

"Because the current economic situation in China is unstable and the Yuan is considered worthless paper, more and more wealthy people are investing in antique porcelain and paintings," he said. These investors do not only collect art works, but they also see them as a new kind of currency.

While he didn't claim the painting he'd wanted, Meng is bringing an antique vase back to Beijing - for 70,000 euros. He'll carry it in his hand luggage. After 200 years abroad, he said happily, his "baby" will soon be back home again.

Autor: Shenjun Liu / jh
Redaktion: Kate Bowen