Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Practical wisdom

A visiting friend was recently soliciting advice on shopping in China. The question cropped up, "How can I tell if something's a genuine antique?"

My response: "When they arrest you at the airport."

This answer, of course, can serve many questions: How can I tell if I'm deemed an 'enemy of the state'? etc.


JES said...

On the USA Antiques Roadshow the other night, a woman had brought for evaluation an Egyptian figurine, maybe 6-8" high, of a sleeping Pharaoh. Her mother picked it up in Cairo in the 1940s; she figured it to have been a trinket from a gift shop, but just wanted to check.

Turned out it wasn't just a cheap souvenir, but dated to pre-Ptolemaic times. (The retail estimate was only around $7000, if I recall, which I thought sounded low based on all the buildup of suspense.) I wondered about Egyptian antiquities laws; the appraiser said, though, that those weren't in effect until some surprisingly late date -- 1970-something.

Good advice in this post. Implicit throughout: Don't fly out.

Anonymous said...

I'm also a fan of the Roadshow and I find it amazing that the Egyptian piece was estimated so low. I recall one episode that piqued my interest due to the items having been created by Washoe Indians who resided here in Nevada in the 1800's. They were three handwoven baskets that were about a hundred years old and their value was at minimum $50k a piece and possibly half a million for all three:

It just confounds me how a few baskets that are around a hundred years old could be valued that much higher than an ancient Egyptian piece that is thousands of years old.

With regards to the post and Chinese antiques, one of the rather sad parts of the WSJ article we discussed the other day, was in reading how the guide was constantly showing them Chinese artifacts in the European museums. Taking them from exhibit to exhibit and explaining how such and such piece was taken from ancient China.

Anonymous said...

Ugh, not a WSJ article, its a The New Yorker article. Evan does good work, I don't want to downgrade him.

Froog said...

That is an odd discrepancy in price - baskets valued more highly than an ancient figurine?!

I suppose it's all down to the supply/demand balance: maybe Egyptian artefacts are surprisingly numerous, and/or not much sought after by collectors? Seems unlikely, but maybe.

Then again, the antiques field is a particularly murky one - where you fear that it's a rather artificial market, with prices often being set by the 'experts' themselves.

Froog said...

The issues underlying this little jape are really five:

1) There's a huge industry in faking antiques in China.

2) It's very difficult to date antiques here, and you're largely at the mercy of a handful of self-proclaimed experts.

3) There always has been a huge industry in faking things in China, so establishing the 'authenticity' of authorship of something is fraught with difficulty, even if you can be fairly confident of its age.

4) The Chinese - as Hopfrog mentions - are hypersensitive about the appropriation of their culture by foreigners. (The vast majority of artworks now overseas - especially the porcelain - was in fact bought legitimately, or received as gifts. But some Chinese seem ready to convince themselves that it was all looted from the Summer Palace by British and French forces in 1860.)

5) There's no transparency or consistency about regulation or enforcement (in this, or any other area!), so you never quite know what's 'legitimate' to export and what isn't - or, as the Chinese view these things, what you can get away with.

Hence the problem that you only find out you may have done something wrong when someone (usually some mid-level official fishing for a bribe) decides to prosecute you.

This is a problem that mostly only affects foreigners on issues like buying 'antiques' - but it affects the Chinese in every sphere of life.