by Antoaneta Bezlova
(IPS) BEIJING -- Panjiayuan, the notorious "dirt" market of Beijing, is an unlikely place for China's new rich to flash their wealth. Famous for its tacky trinkets, Mao memorabilia and piles of junk carted from all over the country, this jumble-sale place has resisted numerous attempts by city officials to smarten it up.
Many of the peasants-turned-dealers in art still arrive from neighboring villages in horse- driven carts where teapots and Buddha's statues are buried under piles of ragged blankets. In winter, the open-air market is still dotted with ancient coal stoves -- some sold as exhibits, others put to more utilitarian use by vendors to warm their hands and heat water for tea.
On crispy weekend mornings when business begins as early as 4AM, the market is bustling but mostly full of artfully forged paintings, porcelain and bronzes. More than 3,000 stalls, often laid straight on the ground, sell everything from jade bracelets to richly colored Tibetan chests. There are heaps of Chinese scrolls and Cultural Revolution posters, piles of snuff bottles, stone cups laid with silver and hand-painted porcelain.
It is the hunt for treasures -- still surprisingly found among the heaps of junk -- that brings heaps of people here every weekend. And often, many flea market enthusiasts have walked away with delightful discoveries of precious Ming vases and miniature Qing statues of opium smokers.
Vendors claim that as authentic pieces become more rare, the crowds get bigger.
China's new rich have joined junk collectors and bewildered foreigners wandering through the stalls in search for that precious scroll or ancient piece of bronze. Even in big weekend crowds where Tibetan and Mongolian vendors stand out in their exotic outfits, these wealthy urbanities are easy to spot -- they wear diamond-studded gold watches (genuine more often than not) and sport the latest models of mobile phones.
"There are more Chinese people coming to look and buy than five years ago," says Hu Chunhua, a red-cheek woman from central Henan who presides over piles of Chinese wood boxes and baskets. "And they are not that bad customers -- they haggle but they have money."
Antiques markets like Panjiayuan are just some of the places where China's rapidly growing class of brash tycoons is spending money on buying art and relics that two decades ago were regarded as useless remains from a feudal past.
In art centers like London and New York, antique dealers report an increasing number of collectors from China travelling abroad to purchase precious Chinese porcelain and art and returning home with them.
The buying spree is fuelled by nostalgia for China's cultural heritage, scattered abroad, looted and vastly diminished in numerous campaigns aimed at obliterating the past. For more than 30 years since its ascendance to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party had confiscated and destroyed what was left of China's unique heritage, stocking public disregard for traditional culture.
But awakening at last to their cultural heritage and aware of the West's long-time fascination with it, China's middle classes are nowadays willing to spend fortunes on spontaneous buys of antiques whose provenance cannot be properly documented.
There is also an impulse to look for ways to diversify out of China's inflated asset bubble. With China's state banks reported to have at least half of their portfolios as non-performing loans and the property sector in main cities overheated, China's new rich are investing in private collections of art and antiques. Many of them see this as a safe heaven for their money.
The same group of new rich Chinese are packing the art auctions in Beijing, fuelling an art boom and sending prices soaring. Auctions which in London would attract no more than 50 people, now draw crowds of 500 in Beijing -- some of them coming just to look.
"It is like a gold rush," says Gan Xuejun, one of the top traders with the Beijing-based Huachen International Auction Company. "There are more and more people that want to buy antiques and works of art but very few of them have any real understanding about its authenticity."
In their quest to satisfy their customers, some unscrupulous dealers are also coming up with forgeries that can easily deceive the inexperienced collector. But even dealers themselves admit that the hunt for quality antiques is getting tougher by the day.
"Every second month I have to go to a different place, further and further away from Beijing to find things that my customers would want to buy," says Rebecca Xu who runs a downtown antique shop and stocks a Chinese classical furniture warehouse in the suburbs. "Nowadays the antiques we can find are often so badly damaged that we would have to repair them in our warehouse before we can sell them."
While few years back Rebecca would stumble upon antiques in villages near Beijing and history-rich towns of neighboring Shanxi province, these days she has to travel to far-flung provinces like Anhui to look for artifacts.
The money invested in antiques has grown so rapidly in the last five years that government officials are beginning to worry about an investment bubble.
Last year, legal sales of cultural relics at auctions in China topped 3.9 billion yuan ($470 million) -- more than triple the amount of 1.2 billion yuan ($144 million ) the auction houses took in 2003.
"In the past two or three years, Chinese art pieces have really shot up," says an art trader with China Guardian Auctions, one of the country's well-established auction companies. "Prices here are now higher than in New York or London. So art is coming here too."
March 9, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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