Back in 2002, Shanghainese Cheng Yong made his first overseas trip to the city of St. Petersburg in Russia. As a literature enthusiast, Cheng was eager to experience for himself the city’s well-known cultural highlights.
There, Cheng not only encountered Russia’s famed artworks, but also a number of extraordinary Chinese antiques, the type of which he had never seen in his homeland. Over the 10 years before his trip, Cheng had traversed most parts of China visiting museums, antique shops and historical sites to better appreciate and learn about Chinese antiques.
“More than half of all top-grade Chinese antiques are scattered overseas,” said Cheng. And during the past 10 years, Cheng has acted as an advisor in helping roughly a dozen Chinese collectors to buy back more than 200 antiques pieces from abroad.
From January 15 to 25, more than 100 of these antiques, all acquired with Cheng’s guidance, were on display at One World One Home, an exhibition space at Sinan Mansions on Sinan Road. Among them was a tri-colored pottery plate from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), vases from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and gold-decorated bronze Buddhas from the rule of the minority Liao group, co-existent with the Song Dynasty.
It is Cheng’s unswerving belief that Chinese antiques belong to Chinese collectors in the same way that a child belongs to its biological parents. “And to get those ‘children’ back to their ‘biological parents’ is the best thing that can ever happen to them,” said Cheng.
According to Cheng, there are three main reasons to explain the presence of so many Chinese antiques overseas: those that were pillaged by overseas interests during the wars of the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911); the international trade between East and West that predated these wars; and the smuggling out of antiques which has been ongoing since the formation of the Republic of China (1912-1949).
“Most of the top-grade antiques left China for the former two reasons,” said Cheng, who has studied China’s ancient arts and those of overseas cultures for many years. He started his own collection of antiques in the early 1990s.
However, when Cheng heard that a Chinese collector had bid ￡5,160 ($8,130) in 2010 for a Qing Dynasty vase, he suggested in his blog that the collector not pay for the vase, but instead give up the deposit he was required to pay the auction house before taking part in the auction.
“In my opinion, this was a second-time plunder in that a Chinese person would be paying for a vase that had been robbed in the 19th century,” commented Cheng, who believes it is the responsibility of nations to return Chinese antiques that were looted during wars, rather than for Chinese individuals to buy them back at exorbitant expense.
Cheng has avoided paying huge amounts for his collection, by visiting private sellers and antique shops before the items reach the auction house.
Over the past decade, Cheng has visited more than 30 cities in Europe, America, Japan and Southeast Asia.
Usually there are only two people on Cheng’s trips abroad: himself and his client. They travel to cities that hold regular auctions, and during their stays they also visit galleries and antique shops.
“Most of the antique shop owners favor deals in cash, which is great for them, but a headache for us,” complained Cheng.
On Cheng’s blog, he recalls how he and a client narrowly escaped being robbed in Barcelona by a pair of thieves who posed as policemen.
“To reduce the risk of being robbed, we normally travel on busy roads as opposed to quieter ones,” said Cheng, who added that he and his clients are sometimes forced to conceal huge amounts of money in their shoes and underwear.
During one trip to Holland, Cheng came across a pair of vases made during the Yongzheng reign of the Qing Dynasty. But unfortunately, Cheng had already spent his money on other antiques during the trip.
“It was a great shame, because not only are they amazing artworks, but they are also a priceless reminder of our traditional culture,” said Cheng.
In 2007, Cheng published a fictionalized novel based on his experiences in collecting circles. He titled the book after the aforementioned pair of vases he was unable to lay his hands on: Guanyao Meiren, which literally means the beauty featured on porcelain wares made at government-operated kilns.
The novel follows the story of a man who is born into a wealthy family and whose large antique collection is confiscated or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). He tries to recreate the glory of the family by collecting other antiques from around the country. However, he is left devastated when it turns out the most important and expensive of these recently acquired antiques is actually a fake.
The novel famously doesn’t feature the commonly-used suffix de among any of its roughly 239,000 characters, an achievement in the use of of language that fellow novelist Ge Hongbing has described as “making other novelists green-eyed.”
Cheng has a long-standing interest in literature and started to write poetry back in the 1980s. In the 1990s, he published a series of novels, among them Qingyu, and Feixiang.
In 2009, he published Guo Feng Xi Xing, which describes how Chinese art has influenced art in the rest of the world.
“Collecting for me is a process of cultural learning, and I hope to convey this idea to more domestic collectors through my books,” said Cheng, who also currently works as a page editor for weekly Shanghai Times.
And this spring, Cheng is setting up a one-year course in antique collecting at the Shanghai University for The Elderly in Huangpu district.