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The booming Chinese economy has launched a global treasure hunt by Chinese antique collectors eager to reclaim cultural assets lost over the centuries and the search is leading many searching for the best preserved artifacts and most lucrative deals to Japan.
At a time when cash-strapped Japanese collectors are cutting down on big antique buys, Chinese groups are snatching up long-lost treasures, once presented as gifts to Japanese nobles. Meanwhile, Japanese tour guides are cashing in on the booming trade by organizing antique auction tours for Chinese eager to buy.
On a recent Monday night, the Antique Mall in Tokyo’s ritzy Ginza district looked like the site of a scavenger hunt hours before a Chinese auction was set to begin. Dozens of collectors filed into the smoke-filled room armed with magnifying glasses in one hand, a flash light in the other. Each trolled through display cases, carefully examining vases, statues, and scrolls before taking a seat in anticipation of bidding.
“Our expanding economy has helped drive the antique market,” said Chang, an antique dealer from Shanghai who refused to give his full name, saying full disclosure would affect the prices his antiques sold for. “Artwork is really starting to become lucrative in China again.”
Japan has proven to be an attractive market for artwork collectors, in part because of its proximity to China, and the sheer number of antiques available here. Many of the relics lost through centuries of war, natural disasters, and the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-76) ended up in the hands of the Japanese. Miyuki Nakamura, the head of Antique Mall Ginza, says wealthy Chinese brought over some valuable artifacts from the Qing and Ming dynasty as thank you gifts, especially during the Meiji-era.
“The Chinese who came to Japan during the Meiji-era were quite wealthy and brought expensive gifts,” Nakamura said. “Also, there were a lot of counterfeit goods that popped up in the years that followed. So there’s a sense among the Chinese that antiques found in Japan are authentic.”
Nakamura also says artwork she sells is much more “accessible.” Her most expensive antique find is a ceramic cosmetics box from the Five Dynasties Period, valued at around $300,000. Compare that with a Qing dynasty vase that sold for $68 million at a London auction last year.
Antique collecting has become a lucrative business in China, expanding along with the country’s growing economy. Ceramics from the Qing and Ming dynasty, along with Tang dynasty statues are among the most valued finds, according to Nakamura. National pride is a driving force behind this booming business to buy back China’s prized cultural heritage. The growing interest in antiques has given rise to specialist dealers, shops, even private museums.
But that demand for artwork has also paved the way for counterfeiters, looking to cash in a national obsession.
“So much of the artwork back home was destroyed during the cultural revolution, so there’s a limited supply,” Chang said. “A lot of what’s left is in poor shape. The Japanese have preserved the antiques nicely. Plus, it’s cheaper here.”
For the Japanese, the antique boom in China is a bittersweet reminder of better times. Throngs of Japanese traveled abroad to buy back Japanese artwork at the height of their economic bubble. The domestic market has declined since, with buyers cutting back as the country’s economy sags.
Chinese Antique Hunters Prowling Japan
The increase in Chinese tourists is a welcome change for Nakamura, and good for business. While Chinese buyers account for less than 10 percent of her customers, she says they account for most of the sales.
“The fact that the Chinese have taken an interest, that national pride is driving this push to bring the antiques home, I think is a very good thing,” she said.