The price of cultural heritage – 天价文物和贱价文化 – English

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The successive evolution of technology from the neolithic has resulted in a large number of ancient artifacts and a wealth of cultural heritage, but in the chaos of time, much of it has been lost. But the paradox is that, over the last twenty years, these artifacts have seen a large-scale, magnificent resurrection, subverting the usual pattern for the history of ancient artifacts and technology.

The digging up of ancient artifacts in China can be divided into three phases. First, after the second Reform and Opening movement in 1993, launching a new wave of urban construction, massive urban expansion encroached on the countryside, many tracts of land were turned up, brining numerous ancient artifacts to light. Second, the development of higways and digging up of old forests meant excavation of more ancient artifacts. Third, in recent years, with new rural constructions, the widespread implementation of the forest contracting system, farmers planting trees in the mountains and digging pits, ancient artifacts have come back to light. Twenty years later, almost every inch of land in China has been turned over, and artifacts buried 2 to 8 meters under the ground have all been dug out, and forced to see the sun of the greedy 21st century.

Black market traffic of ancient artifacts support this massive unearthing. Rural dealers purchase them from farmers at a low price, then sell them to the City collectors. From there, they flow out to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas, and are finally bought back by Chinese collectors for hundreds of millions. This black market in heritage goods is one of the largest sources of private capital growth.

Given their unique nature, the value of historical artifacts is already higher than gold, and they have the potential to reach that of diamonds. They are more profitable than drugs, and have become China’s largest source of private wealth creation. It has been estimated that the current total value of historical artifacts reaches 12 trillion Yuan, nearly half of the Shanghai or Shenzhen stock market capitalisation of 26 trillion. So far, by 2010, the auction price of cultural artifacts had already reached the hundreds of millions, with over 10,000 different pieces. In 2011, the record for highest price of a single artifact was broken at 420 million. That year, the Chinese ancient artifact market entered the ‘hundred million’ era, and became a money black hole for rare objects.

As the market for cultural artifacts exploded, there have been a whole range of scandals. In 2009, in London, a decorated bottle from the Qing Dynasty was sold to a rich Zhejiang merchant for 550 million. This was a miracle scene in the history of Ancient Chinese artifact auction history. However, the bottle, apart from displaying remarkable craftsmanship, did not have any particular points of interest, the type, colours, decoration, all exuded the gaudy smells of the Qianlong era. In my opinion, the value of this object was only one percent of the price it went for.

Another scandal occured this year in March, at an Asian antique auction in New York. A common coloured jar from the Chinese Republic, valued at 8000 – 12000 Yuan, was unexpectedly chased up by Chinese antique dealers, and reached the price of 120 million, and became the prominent black dragon of international art auctions in recent years. International artifact collectors all showed a secret smile. The third scandal happened in March this year at the Tianjin cultural fair. A second-rate ink painting called ‘Yellow River roaring’ was bought by naive investors for 180 millions, to the great astonishment of art historians.

One after the other, these scandals exposed the shortcomings of the Chinese ancient artifact market. First, the low wisdom of the art market, they don’t have the most basic understanding; second, the inability to identify ancient artifacts, or make a correct judgement on their authenticity; three, in light of the above two, collectors can only take part as a gamble, and the entire transaction is dominated by the psychology of gambling.

This gaming of the market is the biggest wrong happening in the collection of ancient artifacts and heritage. The ancient artifacts market is transforming into a super casino, and becomes a giant amusement park for gamblers. This is a dramatic repetition of the fate of the Chinese stock market. The casino effect destroys the basic logic behind the collection and circulation of ancient artifacts. It can only lead to the emergence of super-gamblers, it cannot cultivate lovers, connoisseurs and protectors of culture, and even less can it convert them into promoters of a cultural revival.

Although the price of cultural relics goes higher and higher, forming a gigantic bubble, the cultural level of collectors is crashing, and the status of Chinese culture has never been so shaky. China’s largest collection of artifacts and cultural symbol – the Forbidden City – has been the object of many negative comments in recent years, showing signs of its retreat. If we only talk about the loopholes in its security system, this is no more than a management problem, and the many typos and errors in the letters of commendation and apology have long been assessed by the public as a sign of low cultural quality. But turning a monopoly on public cultural resources into a money-making scheme for the minority reveals the real enemies of culture, which is misappropriation and monopoly of bureaucratic power over cultural relics. In the 2011 show ‘Forbidden City’, corruption was already shown as without limit, and the magnificent repairs of traditional cultural landmarks were clearly showing its odor.

On the one hand, we see the price of cultural artifacts racing up, on the other hand, we see overall cultural values collapse, this contrast forms a sharp allegory. In Chinese history, there has never been such a strange scene. The stories of the cultural artifacts market and the Forbidden City have confirmed to us that historical productions forming a common resource have been embezzled, gambled on, divided, consumed, wasted and poisoned. There seems to be no official responsible for this, and there is no sign that a system of protection is coming forward. But in the depths of the cultural artifact price bubble, officials have thoroughly improved their skills and levels of bribery. When ancient culture perishes to become a tool of profit, Chinese civilisation is falling off the cliff of ancient history. Everybody can hear its scream of pain.

Source: Author’s blog. Date: 13 June 2011. Editor: Cheng Shicai.

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About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact