America might have its vaunted military-industrial complex but China, fast becoming the world’s other great power, has its own version: a state-funded military-cultural complex charged with repatriating antiquities lost to foreign looters and returning them to mainland China.
At the heart of this vast and shadowy operation is Beijing-based Poly Culture and Arts, a pleasant-sounding body ultimately controlled by the People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest military force by numbers and China’s leading arms dealer.
Poly Culture is a curious beast. Its stated aim – beating swords into ploughshares – is laudable and straightforward. A loosely controlled army of agents trawl global galleries and auction houses hunting for specific cultural items. Three thousand-year-old bronzes are highly sought after, as are stone Buddhist sculptures from the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries AD – a high point in Chinese civilisation.
Early Buddhist stone sculptures are equally prized as an umbilical cord to ancient Chinese history and culture. Many are inscribed with the date they were commissioned or carved for a named temple, and can be identified fairly easily. British and French collectors photographed the relics in situ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That makes those relics surviving colonial appropriation and the violence of the Cultural Revolution easier to identify in their original locations.
When items come up for auction, Poly jumps in. Its agents know their budget is virtually limitless: PLA cash, generated through the sale of everything from tanks to exocet missiles, mostly to Africa, Pakistan and south-east Asia, is pumped as needed into Poly Culture. “Poly’s pockets are bottomless,” says James Hennessy, director of London-based Littleton & Hennessy. “They have the financial clout to acquire anything they want.”
“Lost” Chinese antiques, notably guan yao – Imperial-era (pre-1912) art spanning everything from porcelain and jade to household wares – is a market that has reached, in the words of Colin Sheaf, chairman of Bonhams Asia, “unprecedented price levels in very recent years”. Bonhams recently sold two bronzes to a mainland investment group for £600,000: both items were priced at less than £100,000 each, a year ago.
Top of Poly’s shopping list is the Haiyantang, a bronze water clock representing the 12 Chinese figures of the zodiac. The clock was, paradoxically, a western piece of technological wizardry, cast by Jesuit missionaries and emulating the great fountains at the Palace of Versailles; it was broken up and stolen from the Summer Palace by British and French troops at the height of the Second Opium War in 1860. Poly has gone to extraordinary lengths to secure the clock’s full, safe return, paying around $4m for three of the figureheads – the ox, tiger and monkey – in 2000.
Two others were bought by Macau-based gambling tycoon Stanley Ho, while the rat and the rabbit, owned by the estate of the late French designer Yves St Laurent, came up for auction in early 2009, much to Beijing’s displeasure. A Chinese buyer, Cai Mingchao, bid $40m for the items – beating several mainland collectors connected to Poly – only to announce that he would not pay up. The remaining figures are believed to be quietly stored out of sight, probably also in France.
Poly continues to buy, skewing prices wherever it goes. A well-respected Hong Kong-based dealer notes that many of Poly’s acquisitions are made quietly, in private sales rather than public auctions. “If I had a nice bronze that I thought the PLA would like, and it was worth $1m, I would say to the owner: ‘Sell it for $2.5m, and see if you can get more. Poly will pay’.” One of the highest prices paid by the group was $8m for a Bronze Age jar whose cover survived intact in China throughout the Cultural Revolution.
And as Poly grows, it issues new shoots. Beijing International Poly Auction, barely 10 years old, is a powerful player on the mainland art scene along with China Guardian Auctions, with Beijing Council International Auction (BCIA) further back.
In 2005 Poly Culture opened a museum within the group’s new Beijing stone-and-glass headquarters, inviting a choice group of top art dealers to a lavish launch party. One European dealer remembers asking a Poly Culture director how they had built such a big museum in such a short time, whereupon the executive pointed to the sky, imitating the rapid-fire mechanism of a machine gun.
Along with leading individual collectors, Poly loans out its collections, most of which are retrieved from abroad, to Chinese museums in Xi’an and Shanghai, and the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
While wealthy mainland collectors have become powerful players on the global auction scene, hunting for Chinese art, many are buying for investment. Poly Culture by contrast buys for keeps, thanks to the fathomless wealth of its paymasters, the PLA, a body determined to undo the Maoist-inspired cultural carnage of the 1960s. Ironically, in doing so, China’s leaders have managed to create the most hard-nosed state-run cultural institution on the planet.
The chairman of Chinese Estates, a property developer, one of Hong Kong’s richest men, Joseph Lau is nicknamed a “stock market sniper” for his talent in profiting from the trading of undervalued shares. Apart from business, the flamboyant tycoon’s lavish lifestyle and relationships with different women. appear regularly in the city’s tabloids.
Outside Hong Kong, however, he is perhaps best known as an avid art collector, whose tastes have ranged from Chinese antiques to modern paintings through the years.
Armed with a science degree from the University of Windsor in Canada, Lau inherited a fan-making business from his father in the 1970s, then branched out into trading.
He started collecting more than 30 years ago: one of his first reported purchases at an international auction dated back to 1990, when he paid less than $1m for an imperial seal mark from the Qianlong period of the Qing dynasty and a doucai jardinière at Christie’s.
Last year, Lau bought a 7.03-carat blue diamond for $9.48m at Sotheby’s Geneva. More recently, he was one of the eight bidders for “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust”, the 1932 Picasso that sold at auction this month for $106.5m.
Whether he eventually took the masterpiece home remains a mystery: neither Christie’s nor Chinese Estates would comment.
In the lobby of the Grand Lisboa stands a bust of Stanley Ho, the gaming mogul and majority owner of the Macao casino. Behind him lies a bronze horse-head sculpture he bought for a record $8.8m in 2007. The work – the most expensive Qing dynasty sculpture sold at auction – is one of the 12 heads of zodiac animals which graced a water-clock fountain in Yuanmingyuan, the imperial summer palace near Beijing, that was looted in the 19th century.
When Ho bought the sculpture through Sotheby’s Hong Kong, the avid racehorse owner donated it to China. It is on temporary display in the Grand Lisboa while Ho decides which government department to give it to.
“I hope this will encourage more people to join efforts in preserving China’s cultural relics and nurture patriotic feelings,” Ho, 88, said at that time.
Ho seems to think that no price is too high to buy back China’s history.
In 2003, he snapped up the clock’s boar head and gave it to Beijing’s state-backed Poly art museum, which also has the monkey, ox and tiger heads.
In 2007, Ho bought an imperial throne of the Qing dynasty for $1.8m. His other collections of Chinese works of art include a mammoth tusk carving of the Monkey King, one of the country’s best-known legendary figures, and an imperial, gem-engraved clock from the Qing period that imitates the sound of birds.
When it comes to art collectors, Shanghai businessman Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei are among the most famous in China. Driven by Liu’s rule of collecting – “one should buy shares that are cheap and art pieces that are expensive” – the couple spent an estimated Rmb1.3bn (£116m) last year on buying art, including “18 Arhats”, a 16th-century scroll painting by Ming dynasty painter Wu Bin that was sold for Rmb169m, the highest price for any Chinese artwork in auction. It was “my most memorable purchase”, according to Liu. In Hong Kong, they also set a record for Chinese furniture after paying HK$85.7m for a zitan imperial throne from the Qing dynasty through Sotheby’s in October.
Liu, a high school dropout now in his 40s, started a company making bags with Rmb100 in the 1980s. As China began to open up its financial markets in the 1990s, he gave up the business and went into bonds and shares trading. That helped him become a millionaire and build the war chest to fund his newfound interest in collecting art, mainly classical paintings and antiques.
Wang got interested in art at a very young age when she realised her talents in drawing. She started collecting in the 1990s, and is fond of oil paintings and sculptures, especially “red classics” – art pieces that symbolise China’s turbulent decades after 1949.
Guan Yi is China’s most influential collector of contemporary art. Born to a middle-class family that runs a chemical manufacturing company in Qingdao in north-east China, Guan left the family business in 2001 to become a full-time collector. One of the first buyers of Chinese contemporary art on the mainland, he started snapping up many modern paintings, sculptures and installations before they became global phenomena.
“After I started, I realised that no Chinese was buying contemporary art and that everything was going abroad. I thought this was not right. This art of our time is important and we Chinese should buy more of it,” Guan, 44, says.
Guan has now acquired about 800 such works. In spite of that, he is not happy with the soaring prices of Chinese artists. He says contemporary art has become such a commercial product that people are buying it as if it was stock.
This is, he says, especially true among Chinese collectors, who buy four out of five works now. Ten years ago, only one in five buyers was Chinese. “This is clearly a very capitalistic approach. There is no religion in China. Capitalism is god now,” says Guan.
He is now seeking government approval to build a museum that would be 10 times bigger than his current private museum in Songzhuang, a popular art district in the east of Beijing.
Profiles by Justine Lau