Down in the dumps: MONEY FOR OLD WROTE

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2006, 12:00am

Antique dealer Wang Fu pulls up his brand new Buick in the grounds of a pungent junkyard beside a demolition site. He greets a woman who is rummaging in rubbish. 'Boss Cui, where is your treasure?' he asks.

The woman walks into a shabby single-storey house and emerges with a scroll. Having scanned through less than half of it, Wang shakes his head. 'Fake. It's not by Fan Zeng. The figure's scale is not correct,' he says.

It's just another routine treasure hunting trip for Wang. Wang used to be a poor farmer with just three years of formal primary school education. Today he owns three antique shops in the capital. Buying antiques cheaply from dustmen and selling them on to art collectors at higher prices has allowed Wang to turn his back on his previous life.

'We're making a living from the gaps of Beijingers' fingers,' he says.

A country boy from Shandong, Wang was an unwelcome child in his family of 11 so he hitched a ride to Beijing to make a crust. After scraping by as a beggar for about a month, he started collecting rubbish and sorting out used books and magazines.

It wasn't long before he found that old books, calligraphies and paintings could be sold for tidy sums. In 1996, he stumbled across a decree dating back to the Qing dynasty lying around in a junkyard. He tucked the decree into a book and bought it for three yuan. He later sold it for 1,000 yuan.

Wang has always been a keen learner, despite having only three years of primary schooling. To learn more about art history, he has read discarded newspapers, magazines and books and has even studied the handwriting of famous artists so he can tell the difference between genuine artefacts and fakes.

Wang has rummaged through manuscripts dumped by Commercial Press, paintings and letters dumped by Fu Baoshi's family members, and sculptures from generals' homes. Wang also collected almost half of the artefacts in Zhao Qingwei's collection (see main story).

'I work harder and learn harder. I want to let the city dwellers know that farmers are no less smart than them.'