China’s gentlemen collectors have a cachet that money can’t buy

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While records tumble in the saleroom, museums are quietly celebrating the literati tradition

Here’s to good taste: Liu Yiqian sips tea from a fabled Ming dynasty “chicken cup” once owned by emperors, which he bought for HK$281m ($36m) at auction. Photo: Sotheby’s

Chinese eyebrows hit the ceiling when photos began circulating of the eccentric billionaire Liu Yiqian celebrating his latest record-making antiques purchase. In front of the press, he sipped tea from a fabled Ming dynasty cup once owned by emperors.

In April, Liu set a new record price for Chinese porcelain, paying HK$281m ($36m) for the 500-year-old vessel popularly known as “the chicken cup”. Liu, a property developer, often shows his top acquisitions at his Shanghai institution, the Long Museum. But as the new rich break records buying Chinese antiques and ink paintings, others are keen to return to an older, more scholarly style of collecting.

The literati tradition holds the appreciation of art, calligraphy, music, chess and other “gentlemanly” pursuits in high esteem. China has a long tradition of defining “good taste”, and setting standards for what constitutes a high-quality collection. As the art market has rapidly expanded in the past decade, and art has come to be seen as an asset class, cultural power-brokers have been keen to promote old-style art collecting values, based on connoisseurship, history and tradition. In this vein, museums have been focusing on important collectors and their collections.

At Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, the year-long series on the four great masters of Ming dynasty painting has been critically and popularly acclaimed. The four shows, the last of which—dedicated to Qiu Ying, who died in 1552—closes on 29 December, has drawn attention to imperial collecting in the Qing dynasty. Some of these paintings are the most celebrated in Chinese art history, underscoring the sophisticated taste of emperors such as Qianlong (1711-99) who, with the help of a team of advisers, acquired what were deemed to be the best works of the masters.

At the Macau Museum of Art, the exhibition “Chinese Art Treasures”, which closed in November, put the spotlight on works from the collection of Wu Hufan, an important, though relatively unknown internationally, 20th-century artist-connoisseur. The Macau show presented pieces on loan from Beijing’s Palace Museum and the Shanghai Museum, two of mainland China’s most important institutions. Hu, who died in 1968, was an ink painter who was also a discerning collector.

For its last major exhibition before closing in September for a three-year period of renovation, the Hong Kong Museum of Art devoted the main galleries to “Ming and Qing Chinese Arts from the C.P. Lin Collection”. The show, unusual for highlighting the holdings of a living collector, featured objects from the private collection of the retired Hong Kong lawyer. A member of the famed Min Chiu Society, an exclusive club of Chinese antiques and painting collectors, Lin is the epitome of a gentleman-scholar—knowledgeable, aware of classic standards, uninvolved in the art trade except as a collector.

“The idea of the ‘proper’ way to collect resonates to the present,” says Yeewan Koon, a professor of Chinese art history at the University of Hong Kong. Noting the boom in private museum openings on the mainland, she adds: “In today’s China, you have a lot of people who can buy trappings of wealth, so the idea of quality, what is good and good taste, is becoming an issue now.”

Stephanie Braun, a director of Hong Kong’s Karin Weber Gallery, which recently presented a contemporary ink painting show entitled “Lodge of Tranquillity”, says: “Collecting and appreciating art is part of literati culture and lifestyle. The Chinese emerging middle classes and newly wealthy are discovering [that] collecting is a status symbol. If you collect you are showing you are sophisticated.”

She believes museum shows about collecting are making an impact with devotees of Chinese contemporary art because of the strength of Chinese art traditions. What is considered “good art” has its intellectual basis in centuries-old “taste manuals”, she argues. At the same time, fundamental principles such as simplicity or the love of books remain pillars of what constitutes good taste.

The current popularity of contemporary ink painting has also helped to broaden the appeal of, and interest in, traditional collecting. The contemporary ink painting sale at Sotheby’s on 6 October achieved more than double its high estimate: a sale preview in April featured paintings installed amid elements of the “literati lifestyle” and scholarly objects.

“We wanted to put things in context,” says Katherine Don, Sotheby’s Asia deputy director and the head of contemporary Ink. “Our clients like to visualise the past. It’s a great way to engage in history.”

Raymond Tang, who curated the C.P. Lin show at Hong Kong Museum of Art, says he wanted to highlight important collecting in the territory. Hong Kong’s Chinese community produced a number of serious Asian antiques collectors in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but often they shared their works only with close friends and peers. When the museum reopens around 2018, there is expected to be an emphasis on individual collectors.

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