Mad In Pursuit Notebook

Calligraphy by Dong Qichang

On Being Fierce, Part 5: Finding Treasure

Jun. 21, 2015. (cont'd. from 6.20.15) In 2005 I began paying serious attention to Jim's collections. I opened an eBay store and liberated over 1900 closet creatures back to the wild. Then I started inventorying stuff either for big sales (mostly, a book collection and a pile of antique firearms) or simply to understand more about our treasures (like, Asian knickknacks, antique pottery, and vintage photographs). I thought we had explored every shelf, every drawer, every closet. But one drawer remained...

This was Jim's "junk drawer"--where he kept a variety of personal mementos and a small stockpile of gifts for every occasion.

"Hey, Jim, let's check out this drawer." My fierce energy was spilling over into unknown territory.

Yep. Lotta bric-a-brac. But also a few centuries-old Japanese books and a couple Chinese thingies. One of the Chinese thingies was a modest two-page calligraphy, which Jim labeled on the back "Tung Ch'i Ch'ang." I Googled. Found!

Dong Qichang (modern transliteration). 1555-1636. Ming Dynasty.

Tung Chi-chang was the principal spokesman and theoretical leader of a tightly knit group of literati who set the underlying critical and theoretical tone of painting and calligraphy for the next three-hundred years. In painting and calligraphy Tung sought and achieved a return to a style of strong and sometimes even provocative impact. His calligraphy is always full-bodied and rounded, looking backwards to the great calligraphers of the Sung and Yuan periods.

Whoa. Somebody.

Then I checked the recent auction results. You're not actually "somebody" till your shit gets auctioned at Sotheby's or Christie's. Ah, yes, there he was, being sold for several times the estimate in 2014! Chinese stuff... definitely experiencing a bubble. But...

How had Jim known this calligraphy was Dong Qichang? With a lot of his things I have found correspondence with experts and some effort at authentication. I looked through a folder of old receipts and found the original bill of sale. Jim bought the calligraphy from the Washington DC dealer Simon Kriger in 1962. Again, Jim had written on the receipt "Tung Ch'i Ch'ang."

How could I find out if this was trash or treasure????

The big auction houses advertise that they will do "free valuations" on items you might consider consigning with them. That sounded like a reasonable route.

Christies's had a nice online form to fill out, which I spent about an hour doing. Then the damn "Submit" button didn't work. My head exploded. After gathering up my brain chunks, I copied off my answers to their stupid essay questions and emailed everyone listed in Christie's Classical Chinese department. Then I did the same with Sotheby's. That was a Saturday.

calligraphyOn Monday, I got an email from the manager of Sotheby's Classical Chinese Dept. They were interested. Could I bring it right over? The fact that I got someone's attention might have led me to jump in the car and drive six hours to Manhattan, but I thought an email might first be in order. She responded apologetically. Maybe I could just send more photos... like giant enlargements of each character?

By the end of business that day, she and her team had verified that the calligraphy was indeed Dong Qichang and wanted to put it into their September 2015 "Classical Chinese Painting and Calligraphy" auction in NYC. Our humble worm-eaten paper is not in the same class as the silken scrolls that rocketed through last year's auctions, but still, it was deemed worthy of the Show. What the heck! Why shouldn't we cash in on the Chinese bubble? Because...

What's the opposite of bubble? Damp spot? Pancake? Black hole? I've discovered we have quite a few of those. The eighties were big for Japanese paintings. Now they have disappeared from the marketplace. Victorian/Art Nouveau, sterling silver repouse brushes and mirrors? $10 on eBay. Studio portraits of the glamorous faces of the 1930s and 1940s, by the best photographers of the day? Nowhere. Antiquarian books? Fuhgeddaboudit. The free market in collectibles is a cruel landscape.

So, we signed off on the auction and expressed our calligraphy to Manhattan. This will make for a burst of excitement in September. Or we could be sitting here open-mouthed in August watching the Chinese bubble collapse... our aspirations a damp stain on the sidewalks of New York.

But, in the final analysis, collecting is about imagination, dreaming, curiosity, and storytelling. Being Irish, I understand that tales of a broken heart, a bubble burst, and riches that might have been are just as treasured as those of a battle won and a hero triumphant... maybe moreso.

And the fierce energies of May told me it was important for us not to fade quietly behind our cloister walls but to continue to be players in the world.