Written by Minna Törmä.

Every now and then a Chinese artwork hits the news headlines because of the exorbitant price it has fetched at auction. Often it is a piece of ‘imperial’ porcelain or a piece of jade, though occasionally the news in the Western world also tells about a work of calligraphy or painting which has broken all Chinese records.

Historically, calligraphy and painting have formed the ‘fine arts’ in Chinese culture and have been the treasures most coveted by connoisseurs and collectors. Emperors and members of the imperial family were understandably the most prominent patrons and collectors of art. However, a sophisticated and diverse art market existed beyond the confines of the court, and anecdotes abound concerning fabulous discoveries and grave disappointments, as when an expensive acquisition turned out to be a forgery. An art lover could frequent a variety of venues in search for treasures: antique dealers, painting galleries, bookstores (particularly for calligraphy) and open markets, and even restaurants and teahouses, where painters could exhibit their works. If he had the right social network, he could acquire and exchange artworks privately. Or, on rare occasions during his ramblings around the city, he might come across an itinerant peddler whose random assortment of goods could reveal a hidden treasure.

Exorbitant prices were already paid for artworks in imperial times. The Ming dynasty merchant collector Xiang Yuanbian (1525-1590) commissioned the painter Qiu Ying (ca. 1495-1552) to paint a long handscroll – some 570 cm in length – of an imaginary journey through the ladies’ quarters in an ancient imperial palace titled Spring Morning in the Han Palace, now in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. It cost Xiang Yuanbian two hundred taels of silver, which amounted then to more than the annual salary of a minister at court. It broke the record for Ming contemporary art. In a recent Christie’s sale (New York, September 2015) a short blue-and-green style handscroll, Immortals Playing Chess attributed to Qiu Ying, fetched ca. £1.3 million – a high price in spite of the fact that attributions to Qiu Ying are notoriously difficult, as his style has been very popular and frequently copied and his name forged on paintings throughout the centuries.

However, hierarchies of collecting are culturally specific. If calligraphy and painting were the Chinese ‘fine arts’, in the Western tradition ‘fine arts’ consisted of painting, sculpture and architecture. When Western collectors encountered the art market in China, their attention and enthusiasm was not immediately drawn to painting and calligraphy. On the contrary, their comments on Chinese paintings tended to liken them with watercolours or dismiss them as sketches – certainly not on a par with the finished quality of an oil painting. China was known in Europe as the producer of luxurious silks and delicate porcelain.

In Western popular imagination ‘Ming vase’ and ‘Tang horse’ seem to be the quintessential Chinese objects. The travels of the blue-and-white porcelain for which the label Ming porcelain or, even more specifically, ‘Ming vase’ became synonymous have been thoroughly charted by Stacey Pierson. The story is fascinating, and one could trace a similar journey for the ‘Tang horse’, which seems to be a recurring decorative detail in the interiors of spy films. While the former is inextricably linked with Chinese export wares brought to the West in enormous quantities since the eighteenth century, the latter can be connected with the growing fascination with Chinese ‘antiquities’ among Western collectors in the early twentieth century.

A Tang horse was originally created as a piece of funerary paraphernalia, to be placed in a well-furnished tomb together with figurines of musicians, dancing ladies, foreign entertainers and the like. Whereas the Chinese had long considered bronzes to be antiquities, such ceramic figurines were not, and neither were works of religious sculpture. A Tang horse – a robust and powerful figure – and its companions were never meant to decorate a living room nor be a collector’s item and focus of connoisseurship. However, it was the building of the railway network which brought foreign engineers and experts into China and when the workers dug into the soil to lay the foundations for the tracks of the iron horse all kinds of shards and whole objects surfaced. Some engineers, like the Swede Orvar Karlbeck (1879-1967), turned into dealers of antiquities. This is the moment in the early twentieth century when interest in Chinese antiquities among Western collectors and institutions rapidly expanded and funerary figurines were transformed into desirable collectibles. A Tang horse could be placed on a stand and admired as a piece of sculpture and as an expression of the vigour of the artistic expression of the Tang dynasty.

The manufacture of the earthenware and lead-glaze Tang horses and other funerary figurines was the domain of the potter. The horses were produced in large numbers to meet the demands of the funerary trade. Today these terracotta horses are still being made, but the current clientele is found exclusively in the tourist market. In Beijing, a visitor might explore the shops along Liulichang, the traditional street of antique dealers, or the stalls at Panjiayan market, and find them in different sizes to suit a variety of purses. Should the visitor be on a lookout for a real Tang dynasty specimen, matters become trickier, as the market has been invaded by twentieth-century reproductions, which are often paraded as the real thing – “pearls mixed with fish eyes”, as the Chinese say.

Minna Törmä is Lecturer in Chinese art at the University of Glasgow and teaches the history of East Asian art collecting. She is also the author of Enchanted by Lohans: Osvald Sirén’s Journey into Chinese Art (2013; https://minnatorma.wordpress.com). Image Credit: CC by Xuan Che/Flickr.