The Tranquility and Poetic Charm of Chinese Paintings

I have always enjoyed gazing at traditional Chinese landscape paintings as their tranquil impact soothes my mind and body, especially after a hectic work day. They would bring me into a seemingly surreal world of majestic mountain peaks shrouded in cloud or mist, surrounded by lush greenery, gently flowing streams and rustic bridges, with occasional contemplative scholars in their isolated thatched huts savouring the beauty of mother nature or a lonely but content fisherman patiently fishing in a placid lake without any worldly cares. In my becalmed state of mind, I would spontaneously recall the perfect summation of the essence and charm of the Chinese landscape painting. There is poetry in the painting and painting in the poetry, to quote the memorable words of the celebrated Song Dynasty poet So Dongpo.

I first became interested in collecting Chinese brush paintings in the 1980s through the infectious influence of a small group of friends who were established collectors of well-known works by Mainland Chinese artists. Having already earlier been initiated into the palpable excitement of purchasing other art works, it was not difficult for my wife and I to be appreciative of Chinese paintings. These friends invited us to their homes to meet other collectors in their art appreciation evenings , which they would take turns to host. Under their tutelage, I began to learn about the various schools of Chinese paintings, with differing styles, characteristics and approaches in interpreting the salient points of Chinese paintings, be it on landscapes, flower and birds, human figures, and other subject matters. When our interest reached a level when we were ready to acquire our first pieces, these thoughtful friends would introduce us to a couple of reputable art dealers in town in order to ensure that we would be off to a smooth and good start in our new interest.

At that time, more Singaporeans were smitten by the collecting bug than ever before, and especially popular were the collecting of Chinese paintings. The local art galleries were well-stocked with works by Mainland artists of considerable repute and their prices, in comparison with their market value today, were affordable to many Singaporean professionals, business executives and successful businessmen and women. For example, a thousand dollars or two could easily buy you works of China’s leading contemporary artists. Among the keenest were the English-educated elites, some of whom could not even read or write Chinese. Despite such obvious handicap, several of our personal friends had, over the years, built up creditable collections through knowledge learned from art publications in English, with the initial help of fellow collectors, dealers and, principally, through their own artistic tastes and judgments.

I have always held the view that the monetary value of a nation’s art works, apart from their artistic merits, is also influenced by domestic and international demand as well as by its economic and political clout on the world scene. Japan is a very good example. Following its defeat in WWII in 1945, its art pieces could be had cheaply as the country was devastated and impoverished. Consequently, many of their best specimen were eagerly sought overseas and left its shores. Prices for Japanese art pieces began to escalate relentlessly when Japan became rich from the ’70s onwards due to increasing demand from their own individual and corporate collectors, in addition to international competition for the most desirable works. With the rapid rise of China as an economic and political power since the mid 1990s, the value of Chinese works of art too have risen by leaps and bounds for the same reasons as the Japanese case. Nowadays, well-off Chinese collectors would especially seek out the rarest of their country’s art works at international auctions by paying high prices, often out of patriotic sentiments, especially for articles that were removed form China unfairly by foreigners in the distant past, in order to ensure that these would remain where they really belong. These works, including Chinese paintings, would now fetch millions of US dollars a piece. However, compared with the most expensive Western oil paintings, their prices are still a long way below them. So, art experts confidently predict that the works of renowned Chinese artists will continue to move forward until the gap between them and the Western paintings has been substantially narrowed. This, inevitably, must happen if China continues its current economic expansion at a high rate.

Be that as it may, one daunting obstacle confronting collectors of Chinese paintings is that the faking of works of leading artists, both past and living, is widespread as it is very lucrative. In a seemingly perverse way, that is what makes buying them so exciting and challenging. Not infrequently, it is a battle of wits and knowledge between the collector and the unethical dealer, the outcome of which would invariably favour the latter if the collector is inexperienced and naive. Occasionally, some fakes are so skillfully created that they could even fool almost anyone, including the experts in the field. There have been many cases of dispute between reputable auction houses and the buyers and most have been settled between the parties privately without litigation. However, a celebrated case regarding a significant work by artist Zhang Daqian, often dubbed the “Chinese Picasso”, ended up in the Chinese Supreme Court and the parties involved was a leading Chinese auction house and a prominent Chinese corporation seeking refund of the massive price they paid on the ground that the painting was a fake. Unfortunately, I am unable to obtain its decision thereon as the case might have been ultimately settled out of court and the terms of settlement were not made public.

Almost all contemporary fake Chinese paintings emanate from Hong Kong, Macao and, increasingly since the ’90s, from the Mainland China itself. The rise in fakes of famous Chinese painters is due mainly to the current Chinese and worldwide demand for fine Chinese paintings. This has led to very substantial increases in their market values as such works, especially those of artists no longer living, are finite and their demand would have already outstripped their availability in the market place. To make the supply situation more acute, many of the works by China’s most notable painters are now in foreign museums and firmly held by them. Already, Chinese fine art dealers and auction houses have been scouring Southeast Asia, including Singapore, as well as other countries with sizable collectors of Chinese paintings with a view to persuading them to re-sell their pieces to them at attractive prices or to induce them to auction these in China and cash in on their profits. I know as a fact that quite a few Singaporean collectors had found it worthwhile to take handsome profits from their past purchases.

If some fakes are of high quality, why won’t the fakers proclaim their creative talents openly by proudly selling their original works instead? In my view, the collectors are partly to blame because most would go for big names only, often for prestige or investment purposes. Sadly, when tastes in collecting are invariably dictated by snobbery or monetary considerations, a painting’s intrinsic quality tends to become grossly distorted so that one might fetch a king’s ransom in the market place, while another by an unknown but promising artist could not even secure a buyer at low prices. Consequently, some talented but frustrated artists would be compelled to live in the shadows of the masters by passing off their works in order to survive economically in this harshly competitive profession.

In the ’80s Singapore was a rich “fishing ground” for Hong Kong’s fly-by-night art peddlers who would hold regular art exhibitions cum sales here with a seemingly impressive array of works attributed to luminary Chinese artists including Qi Baishi, Zhang Daqian, Huang Binhong, Fu Baoshi, Wang Yi-Ting, Zheng Shifa, to name just a few, at prices that were very much lower than their going rates for the genuine pieces at the reputable art galleries here and elsewhere. Virtually all were outright fakes of these venerable art masters, which a discerning collector would be able to tell without any difficulties. Also, the low price tags for these inferior works should have been an obvious tell-tale sign to an average collector with some knowledge of the Chinese art market. The cheap prices were the bait set by these unscrupulous art vendors who exploited the inexperienced collectors’ vanity and weakness to secure bargains at bargain basement prices and then boast about their achievements to others. Many succumbed to the bait, hook, line and sinker. Indeed, the adage: “A little learning is dangerous” and the commercial caveat: “Buyer beware!” are timely reminders for those who intend to take up this esoteric pursuit that knowledge and judgment in this field cannot be built up quickly, except through learning and experience.

When some of these hapless victims subsequently found out that they had been taken for a ride by these “black sheep” art merchants, they tried to locate them in Hong Kong to seek refunds, but were shocked to find out that their respectable business addresses printed on their business cards were fictitious ones and they could not be traced. At the other end of this episode, other unsuspecting victims might still be basking in the glory of their “exceptional finds” and are elated over their good fortunes and sound artistic judgments!

Are there no safeguards or legal protections against such blatantly dishonest art dealers to allow them to get away with their misdeeds with impunity? The best safeguard, in my view, is to buy art works from only reputable dealers. You will find them in Singapore and elsewhere too. This is because reputations take a long time to establish, and no reliable dealers would be foolish enough to place their hard-earned reputation in jeopardy by betraying the customer’s trust and goodwill with one dishonest act of selling a fake work as a genuine article. Also, it is always prudent to insist on a certificate of authenticity of the piece purchased as a further safeguard. As to legal protections, this would differ from country to country. As far as I know, in Singapore, one can sue a fraudulent dealer for misrepresentations under the Sale of Goods Act. However, do be forewarned that litigation is a costly, traumatic and long drawn our affair and the outcome is not always predictable. It should only be resorted to when other modes of resolving the matter have been exhausted.

Luckily, we were spared such painful learning experiences because we were ever mindful of the dangers of buying Chinese paintings from unproven sources and had heeded the sound advice from our more experienced collector friends. Above all, we must thank the late Mr Sze, Manager of the Chung Hwa Art Gallery, who had taught us the art of buying good Chinese paintings, based on his expertise and experiences in this field. He was one of the most knowledgeable and respected art dealers in Singapore and was always most helpful to collectors. He passed away many years ago. I can still recall vividly and fondly the many a most pleasant Saturday afternoon spent at his gallery in South Bridge Road admiring his impressive array of paintings of both renowned and up-and-coming Chinese artists, which he personally sourced from China, and listening to his masterful commentary on their merits and also certain weak points, and therefore the price disparity, in order to guide us in our selections to suit our budgets. He never rushed us to make up our minds and would instead advise us to take home the pieces that we liked to see if we could live with them over time before making up our minds whether or not to purchase them.

Over the years, we had bought a number of paintings from Mr Sze and they included works by Lu Yanshao, Li Kuzhan, Chen Dayu, Tang Yun, Song Yinke, Wang Xuetao, Zheng Shifa and Xuxi, among others. Through his introduction, we also acquired a couple of paintings by Huang Zhou and Ya Ming form Zhi Kuzha Gallery of Hong Kong. Mr Sze and the proprietor of this shop were good friends and had jointly held art exhibitions in Singapore and Hong Kong. In our first trip to China during the “80s, I sought Mr Sze’s guidance on buying paintings there. He very kindly and unselfishly advised me that the most reliable shop to buy them would be the 300-year old Rong Baozhai, the most famous and venerable art dealers in Beijing, and asked me to mention his name to a Mr Zhang there. We went to this famed art shop and was given every assistance by Mr Zhang, who most professionally and patiently showed us more than a dozen of paintings by some of China’s leading artists in a private room usually reserved for important customers because of his firm friendship with Mr Sze. With his help and recommendations, I purchased two paintings that both my wife and I liked very much, one by Zhu Qizhan and the other by Lu Yanshao, with a special discount.

I met one of China’s top artists, Guan Shanyue, a leading light of the Linnan School of painting, through the then Director of Singapore’s National Museum, Mr Lee Wai Kok, when he was invited to stage a solo exhibition at his museum. At my invitation, Mr Guan and his wife, accompanied by Mr Lee, came to our house for dinner. I took the opportunity to invite several of my fellow collector friends, most of whom own Guan’s paintings and that of other Lingnan School artists, to meet Mr Guan and to show him their pieces. Mr Guan was thrilled to see a rare painting by his teacher, Gao Chienfu, a founder of Lingnan style of painting, and spontaneously suggested that he and my friend pose for a picture together, with the masterpiece between them. However, his jovial mood suddenly turned sombre when a work of his, his special gift to a very good friend overseas, came into the collection of one of my other guests. The master artist was most disappointed that his friend would part with it for money as the painting was sentimental to him.

While in Singapore, Mr Guan was asked by many Singaporean collectors to authenticate his his own works in their collections, some of which turned out to be fakes. In this delicate situation, he would be diplomatic but witty at the same time to make light of their oversights. “I have painted numerous paintings over the decades, but I don’t seem to remember having done this particular one. In any case, this artist can probably do a better job than I can!”, joked the famed artist.

Collecting Chinese paintings, and other art works, have made life more pleasant and meaningful for my wife and I and they will continue to give us endless hours of enjoyment. Also, they certainly look more attractive than stock and share certificates!

Lam Pin Foo

2 thoughts on “The Tranquility and Poetic Charm of Chinese Paintings

  1. I enjoyed very much reading your account of collecting Chinese paintings. I warmly nvite you to see my own collection of classical Chinese paintings, and post comments on some pieces (you can use nicknames, as I do myself…

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