Fu Baoshi's granddaughter: I was destined to deal art

Jenny Pat was a weather reporter and a teacher, but Fu Baoshi's granddaughter - who claims paintings on display at a Hong Kong mall under his name were fake - was destined for art

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 March, 2013, 12:00pm

Jenny Pat may be the director of an art gallery, but she loves blank walls. Paintings at her home are not hung, but rest casually against the sides of rooms.

"If I had just one thing up there, I'd get sick of looking at it pretty quick," said the 31-year-old art dealer.

It's an occupational hazard that comes of being from a family of artists. The granddaughter of master Chinese painter Fu Baoshi, Pat has been surrounded by art and artists all her life. Her mother Fu Yick-seun is a painter, as are her four aunts and uncles.

On this Friday afternoon in February, she's sitting on the bright red couch of her gallery, Article, surrounded by contemporary Chinese works. Little tongue-in-cheek figurines of Communist cadres in "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" poses line the window sill.

Recently, Pat hit the headlines when she spoke out about fakes in the industry - rare behaviour for a dealer. She claimed on social networking site Weibo that the collection of her grandfather's paintings owned by Hong Kong-born businessman Chiu Tat-loy, on show at the Plaza Hollywood in Diamond Hill earlier this year, were bad quality fakes.

"The first thing I learned at the auction house was to keep my mouth shut," said Pat.

"This industry is so small that you don't want to offend anyone. Also, most of the time people aren't willing to label a piece as a fake unless they're absolutely sure. What if you're wrong? You're giving that painting a death certificate."

But she has no doubt the pieces she saw were fakes, after studying her grandfather's work and spending four years seeing copies being brought in for authentication at Christie's auction house.

"It's a combination of theory and practice," she said. "You know the provenance - where it's from, the condition of the painting, you know certain artists have certain habits, you know the kind of rice paper the artist used and its absorbency, what kinds of seals they liked, under what circumstances they painted.

"For example, my grandfather in the 1940s didn't have much space in his studio, there can't have been three-metre-long paintings from that era. All of these things add together."

Art - and controversy - have always been in the blood for Pat. During the Cultural Revolution, her uncles were sent to labour camps, one for drawing a "silly political cartoon" and another for gossiping about Lin Biao .

"It really cramped their careers," said Pat. One uncle had a stroke at the camp, and is paralysed down his right side. He now paints with his left hand.

Her mother and two of her sisters also make a living selling paintings.

*Her family doesn't seem to want for riches and there are some heirlooms that aren't for sale. Her eldest aunt refuses to sell any of her paintings, while Pat's grandmother preferred to give away most of her late husband's paintings.

"She wanted everyone to be able to see them, not just among the wealthy collectors and dealers. The museum was the natural choice," said Pat.

A Fu Baoshi painting in November 2010 went for HK$70.1 million at a Christie's auction in November 2010.

"Why would I want to sell them? Give it all away to that museum next door," said Pat, putting on the voice of a crotchety old lady. "My grandmother lived next to the Nanjing Museum [so she donated a chunk of the paintings to that]. I think they took that collection to the Met Museum [Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]."

Pat and her mother moved to Vancouver in the 1990s, after her parents divorced. She was 12 years old then.

She remembers being in a high-rise hotel in Detroit, waiting to be interviewed by Canadian government officials, and being terrified of the sirens she heard going past at night.

"I had to coach my mother, because her English wasn't good. 'My name is Fu Yick-seun, I am an artist,'" she said, imitating the broken and heavily accented English her mother had then.

But despite her family history, Pat didn't always want to be in the art industry. "When I was 18, back in Vancouver, I wanted to work at the fish market - to gut fish - but they wouldn't take me … back then I would have been a truck driver if they'd let me."

During those years, Pat also worked as a weather reporter, a waitress and a teacher at a Buddhist temple. "That's just what you did during summers in Vancouver," she said with a shrug. But once Pat graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2004, she felt the city was no longer for her, and moved to Beijing to work as a junior specialist for China Guardian, one of the country's most established auction houses.

"It was a path that was set for me. When I was 14, my mother told me I would one day work for Christie's. At the time, I just thought it was something mentioned by Sherlock Holmes, and how cool it must be if it was mentioned by him."

On the coffee table in front of Pat is a book of Fu Yick-Suen's paintings. The pastel colours and softer strokes are reminiscent of impressionist works - was she influenced by that movement?

"My mother wasn't formally trained, none of them were," said Pat, before pausing. "I don't know if I'm supposed to tell you that. But, oh well, now you know.

"My grandfather thought you either had it, or you didn't."


Jenny Pat

Age: 31

2004: Degree in Visual Art History, University of British Columbia

1999-2002: Weather reporter, Fairchild TV, Canada
2004-06: Junior specialist, China Guardian Auction, Beijing
2006-10: Asian art specialist, Christie's Hong Kong
2010-present: Founded JP Fine Arts, and began to deal in Asian, impressionist and modern art
2012: Starred in seven-part Discovery Channel reality television show Dealers
2012-present: Became the director of Article gallery in Hong Kong

*Clarification: An earlier version, which ran in Monday's print edition, said Pat's grandmother preferred not to auction Fu Baoshi's remaining works to private collectors. To clarify, she chose not to sell them and gave away a good chunk of her late husband's paintings.