Curator Ma Weidu is a rich source on antiques
There is no putting a price on Ma Weidu's expertise, acquired longbefore much of the mainland woke up to the value of old things
After the founding of the People's Republic of China, appreciation for culture was a luxury that few people could afford. It was rare for people to be in a position to devote themselves to its study. Ma Weidu became an enthusiast, and eventually one of the mainland's trailblazers in the field of antiques. Today, with the economy growing into the world's second largest, Ma has seen fellow Chinese develop the capacity to turn their attention and appreciation towards China's vibrant past. Now 58, he recounts his journey from merely an antiques aficionado to head curator of the Guanfu Museum in Beijing.
How did you become interested in antiques?
I started taking an interest at a very young age. These old objects are richer in historical content than new things, and this piqued my curiosity more and more. When your interest grows, you start to delve deeper, and the deeper you go, the more challenging it is to unravel the mystery behind each antique. Hence the cycle was started that pulled me in.
Did you develop this interest as you got older?
Yes and no. When we were young, society did not really advocate cultural studies - such things were criticised instead. To have any related material in your home would invite trouble. So while I was enthralled by the history, I was not given many opportunities to develop the interest. Simply put, you could not go see an exhibition or read a relevant book. By the time I wrote my first book on porcelain, it was also the first book written on the mainland that provided the public with a broad understanding of the topic in the vernacular; the only other two well-known works were The History of Chinese Ceramics and Chinese Ceramics, both of which were very academic and really quite dull.
How were you able to sustain your interest, given those conditions?
Well, I had always had an obsession with figuring things out that did not make sense. If you talk about ceramics today, you know and can differentiate between all the different types, such as qinghua, fencai, wucai and doucai, which originate from different time periods such as during the reigns of Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong [three early emperors of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911)] - we did not have any of this knowledge when we were little, only that these things were old. So I had to get to the bottom of it, and that was what kept me going.
What are some of the most interesting and valuable antiques you have examined?
It is really hard to choose one - I have seen so many over the years that I cannot pick just one. As for the most valuable, it is also hard to tell. When I was younger I saw value as monetary worth. As I grew older and worked on the museum, I realised those things were not important. As a collector, it does not matter what the market price is, because you are not selling anyway.
What drove you to want to do what you do?
It began as a general interest, but I quickly developed goals. It is like sports - you start playing because it is fun; once you are good at it you want to win regionals; then you want nationals; then you want the international title. Your goals become more ambitious over time. Nobody begins on their first day thinking they will be the best. When I first started, a lot of people thought it was a waste of time and effort. But I really wanted to do it - to take what had been a mystery and be able to explain it to the current and future generations. And I have been very fortunate to have had the chance to talk on shows watched by millions; those kinds of figures are unthinkable for a researcher of antiquities on television. Society's need for culture is much greater than it was 30 years ago.
With the increased interest, how much fraud do you think there is?
Oh there is a lot of it. I see dozens of pieces a day and a great many are fakes. What is worse is that it is becoming harder to identify them from the real works. The quality of frauds is greater than ever before and has tricked many people.
What steps do you take to authenticate a piece of work?
That is a good question. For me, it is a mix of knowledge and experience. First, you need to know all about the different features of an item in relation to its period of origin. Every era has its own distinctive style, just like how photographs from different decades are easily distinguishable. One could more or less correctly organise a series of photos from the 1920s to the 80s because the images of each era hold a particular aura. The same goes for antiques - each piece has its own aura; it's just not as easy to identify them compared to things that are more commonplace. Becoming adept at appraisal also takes a certain measure of experience.
There have been times when I have had trouble coming to a conclusion, in which case I will put off the decision and examine the object again later.
What was your profession before you started work on the museum, and as an antiques expert?
I used to work in literature. I had a job at a publication as an editor. I had also worked in the film industry before, without having much interest in it.
How has the interest in antiques developed on the mainland over the past decades?
The most significant development is that almost everyone has started paying attention to the monetary value of antiques. Back in the day, people did not respect culture, so pieces that are almost priceless now were worthless 30 years ago. Now people know these works are valuable - some articles are worth more than the wealth of entire families. As a result, interest has emerged where there was none before. By the time my private museum was approved for construction in 1996, the People's Republic of China had been around for 47 years and not a single private museum was to be found - all were government owned. Now, the Guanfu Museum runs three branches across the mainland [in Beijing, Hangzhou and Xiamen ], with three more on the way [in Harbin , Shanghai and Shenzhen].
However, as it stands, the interest in antiques is excessive. The public is overzealous, as opposed to in the West, where art trends are, though followed, not a significant part of peoples' lives. It has gotten to the point where I can hear discussions of art investments at almost every table around me when I visit a restaurant. It is a very narrow field with too many people trying to take their place in it.
Do you think this will become a problem?
No. Once this period has passed, people will turn their attention elsewhere, and the amount of interest in antiques will level out.
Ma spoke to Nicholas Deng