Appraisers peruse the ‘antiques’ of hopeful owners

IN Western countries, TV programs featuring antique experts appraising old stuff that people drag out of family storerooms have long been attracted millions of viewers. A new and similar service offered free by the city’s Administration of Cultural Heritage is proving equally popular.

The appraisal sessions in Shanghai attract people who hope their “priceless” possessions will make them millionaires. The reality is somewhat more sobering.

Ding Jianxiao lugged two large, heavy bags to the Duoyunxuan Group in Changning District, where five antique experts waited to have a look.

She sat at a desk and unwrapped two porcelain plates from a cardboard box. She handed them over to Zhou Lili, a former porcelain researcher with the Shanghai Museum.

Were these plates really made during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1735-96)?

“No,” Zhou replied after a cursory look. She guessed they were made in the mid-20th century.

“We see many fake antiques like this,” she explained. “The craftsmen believed that porcelain wares made during the Qianlong sovereignty looked like this, but they were actually not. Genuine porcelain from that era had certain features not found on these two plates.”

Ding was disappointed. She said the two plates were cherished by her late father and left to her when he died.

“He told me that he had bought the plates from an antique dealer when he was young,” she said. “I was disheartened to learn that they are really worthless fakes, but at least now I know.”

Like most people, Ding said she didn’t know where to turn for an appraisal. Taking items to appraisers in the antique market can be risky, with charlatans offering fake opinions for big fees.

That’s why the Shanghai Administration of Cultural Heritage decided to initiate the appraisal services. For two hours, three days a week, Zhou and other experts assess antiques for people. The event, organized by the Shanghai Administration of Cultural Heritage, involves the participation of the Shanghai Association of Collectors, the Shanghai Antique and Curio Store and the Duoyunxuan Group, a venerable cultural entity in China.

The experts give only oral opinions; they don’t offer written certification of value.

In recent years, local public security authorities have tried to crack down on swindlers offering fake appraisals. Last year alone, more than 3,000 people in Shanghai were caught in traps that bilked them of more than 100 million yuan (US$14.4 million).

The Shanghai Wengang Culture Media Co is one example. People the company promoted as professional appraisers turned out to be imposters who told people that essential worthless items were priceless treasures. For that “good news,” people paid the company huge sums of money to organize auctions that never quite took place.

The scam earned nearly 1 million yuan in a month before the Hongkou District Public Security Bureau shut it down and detained the principals.

Police said the director of the company, a man surnamed Song, was a repeat swindler who preyed on the get-rich-quick dreams of customers.

Song said people who were told they had to pay early 10,000 yuan for an appraisal didn’t blink an eye at the cost, believing they would reap millions after the auction.

That fervor has carried over to the new free appraisal service. It has become so popular that online appointments are now required and each person is limited to two antique items.

People bring in all sorts of things: Chinese painting and calligraphy scrolls, porcelain ware, jade ware and coins. They all hope they will become instant millionaires after the appraisal.

Most leave disappointed. One man brought in a huge, basin-sized jar, claiming that it came from the family home in Harbin. The experts told him it had no particular value and he could ship it back to family members in the northeastern Chinese city.

“Last week another man brought in the very same jar,” said Zhou. “Obviously, people are being tricked by the same fraudulent antique dealers.”

Some people actually get angry when told the antique they thought priceless is actually worthless.

That was the case with an elderly man who brought in a porcelain bowl that he reckoned would fetch more than 1 million yuan. The appraisers told him it was actually modern-day product. He refused to believe them.

“I read a lot of books and compared every detail of my bowl with what the book said,” the man claimed. “I’m very sure that it is a genuine porcelain bowl of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

“These so-called experts know nothing,” he added.

Experts say that it’s extremely rare to find genuine antiques floating around outside of museums.

Zhou said most of the items she has appraised since the service started in late March are just factory-made bowls, plates, cups and brush containers.

“It seems that many people misunderstand what makes an antique precious,” said Zhou. “They believe that anything old is automatically valuable. That is actually not the case. The value is all in the craftsmanship.”

According to the local culture heritage administration, the free appraisal service is operating on a trial basis. If it is successful, it may be upgraded to provide professional certification for genuine antiques — if they can be found.

Where to get appraisal help

• Shanghai Association of Collectors

Date: Every Monday (except for holidays), 2-4pm

Address: 4/F, 220 Anren Street

• Duoyunxuan Group

Date: Every Wednesday (except for holidays), 1:30-3:30pm

Address: 5/F, 593 Yan’an Rd W.

To register, go to www.duoyunxuan.com.cn/bmb/bmb.asp.

• Shanghai Antique and Curio Store

Date: Every Thursday (except for holidays), 1:30-3:30pm

Address: 238 Guangdong Rd