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China's nouveau riche reclaim nation's lost antiquities

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN Beijing Bureau Chief
  • Qing dynasty vase sells for record-breaking $68 million at London auction
  • Buyer of vase is reportedly from mainland China
  • More newly-rich Chinese are drawn to collecting antiques for investments, prestige
  • Collectors happy to identify themselves as patriotic when buying artifacts taken from China
  • China
  • Auctions

"Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing, China (CNN) -- The sale of a mid-18th century Qing dynasty vase for $68 million last week at a London auction has created quite a stir in China. While the media highlighted it as the most expensive oriental art bought at auction, the identity of the anonymous buyer created greater interest -- especially among the rapidly growing ranks of newly-rich Chinese antique collectors.

Flush with cash, these buyers now consider antique collecting a status symbol and a source of national pride. "I do not know if I should feel proud or if I should feel ashamed," says Jessie Luo, a trading company executive based in Luxembourg. Luo bemoans the loss of Chinese artifacts to overseas collectors. "Now someone who is Chinese has to pay so much to buy it back after hundreds of years," she says.

The purchase has sparked speculation in the Chinese media about the anonymous buyer, who is reportedly from mainland China. Many wonder whether the buyer was driven by national pride.

Vase breaks world record at auction

"Patriotism and antique collecting are now tightly linked," adds Gong Jisui, a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. "Collectors are happy to identify themselves as patriotic."

Gong, who is also an expert in antique valuation, says a growing number of Chinese are drawn to collecting antiques "not only because of cultural familiarity but also because these antiquities are liquid assets. Investment options in China are too few so antiquities are like an asset portfolio."

See more of CNN's coverage of China

Antique collecting is also believed to be good for business. Nine years ago, the China Poly Group bought two bronze figureheads -- looted from China's Old Imperial Palace in 1860 by British and French troops -- at a Hong Kong auction. The trading and real estate company prominently exhibited the pieces in Hong Kong and China as part of a PR campaign to drum up national pride and boost company name recognition.

Antique dealing has become lucrative: Tang dynasty statues, Ming furniture, Qing porcelain and 19th-century scrolls and paintings are among the items most coveted by collectors. It's not surprising: antiques have traditionally been prized possessions among wealthy Chinese families. China's nouveau riche entrepreneurs have now amassed great wealth and are reverting to old ways.

In most Chinese cities, strong demand for antiques has spawned specialist dealers, curio shops and even private museums. The likes of the Panjiayuan Market in south Beijing have become tourist attractions. Several auction houses are doing brisk business in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. In September, the final sale of a four-day series of auctions by China Guardian grossed the equivalent of $59 million -- the highest amount since 2005.

The antiques market has become so hot that even the media have cashed in. Beijing Television, for example, airs a popular show called "The World Of Collecting", which invites ordinary people to show off their collections, usually family heirlooms or porcelains bought in the market. A panel of experts inspect, deliberate and then pronounce the pieces genuine or fake. If the items are fake, the show host smashes the pieces with a sledgehammer in front of an amused audience.

The collection of antiques is also becoming particularly prestigious because genuine items are becoming harder to obtain. China lost many of its relics through centuries of wars, natural disasters and plunder by foreign invaders. When Chairman Mao condemned the "four olds"-- old ideas, culture, customs and habits -- during the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-76), valuable antiques were destroyed by rampaging Red Guards, adding scarcity value to those that survived.

After China opened up to the outside world, some of the country's budding entrepreneurs did a brisk trade in antiques. During the early 1980s, when I was a struggling journalist in Beijing, I used to frequent "flea markets" like Panjiayuan. There, it was quite common for market vendors to discreetly open straw-filled baskets to show "antiques" that they vowed were old and authentic. Chinese media have expressed alarm at the extent of antique dealing, alleging that ancient tombs are being robbed and museum collections looted. Many are sold in Chinese markets or smuggled overseas.

The Chinese authorities are unsure if free trade in artifacts is a boon or a curse. But many collectors agree with the government's efforts to reverse the outflow of the nation's cultural heritage. Quasi-government groups and rich collectors now frequently take part in auctions abroad to buy back prized items.

Antique collecting may be lucrative to some but for collectors it can be very risky. "China is no stranger to counterfeit goods," explains Mikala Reasback, a freelance writer in Beijing. "Someone at Panjiayuan once tried to sell me an 'ancient urn' with a 'Dishwasher Safe' sticker on the bottom. If something isn't appraised by a team of independent experts, there's a risk of buying bogus goods."

Another risk, warns Gong, is the blind exuberance among novice investors coming to the market. "They cannot tell the genuine from the fake so they over-pay," he says.