J.J. Lally on the Meteoric Rise of China’s Art Market & the Scholar-Painters of the Song, Ming & Qing Dynasties

Artsy Editorial
Mar 12, 2015 9:43PM

This Friday March 13th, James Lally of J.J. Lally & Co. opens the exhibition “Chinese Art from the Scholar’s Studio,” and in anticipation of the show, and numerous other gallery openings and auctions during Asia Week New York, we caught up with Lally, who shares below his insights on the ever-growing Chinese art market and offers sage advice for new collectors. 

Photo by Steinhorst at Paris Biennale, Sept. 2010

The sudden and rapid change in the Chinese market is clearly the result of historic changes in mainland China. When the country’s premier Deng Xiaoping declared “to be rich is glorious” in the early 1980s and began the reversal of the Communist economic and social policies that had banned normal artistic and collecting activity in China, the revival and growth of the art market came faster and stronger than anyone could have predicted. Chinese art now produces the largest sales volume of any category of art in the world, and the volume still continues to grow. Not only has the Chinese art market changed dramatically in the last 40 years; curators and collectors have also changed their methods and developed new attitudes.

What impresses me most about this rapid international growth of the Chinese art market is the expanding list of categories being explored, studied, and pursued, creating new knowledge and opportunities. A good example is the category known as “Art from the Scholar’s Studio,” which refers to the items used and collected by sophisticated scholar-painters in the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties: inkstones, seals, brush rests, incense burners, brush pots, cabinets, boxes, strange rocks, soapstone carvings etc. All of these kinds of items were not studied or pursued, and were little understood in the international market 40 years ago. In “Chinese Art from the Scholar’s Studio” at J.J. Lally & Co., highlights will include a large cast silver seal surmounted by a seated tiger from the early Kangxi period, inscribed and dated 1686; a Ming dynasty gold-splashed bronze censer from the 17th century; and a very rare and impressive cast iron panel, with a figure of the demonic deity Kui Xing, known in China as the guardian of scholars.

My advice to new collectors interested in collecting early and ancient Chinese would be first to seize all opportunities to see and handle examples of whatever you choose to collect wherever you can find them. Museums are a great resource to train your eye and auction house exhibitions are often the best opportunity to see and examine closely all kinds of Chinese art. Books and the internet are great sources of information, but direct contact with the actual works of art is the only way to develop real connoisseurship. Second: network with other collectors, curators, art historians, and art dealers who are interested and expert in your category. Third: develop a good working relationship with a dealer whom you find pleasant and reliable. A good dealer can and should survey the entire international market and can offer a very helpful perspective on what is available in the private market as well as at auction.An auction house expert can also be a great help, and may offer some advice outside of the saleroom. Collecting alone, without anyone who shares your interests, is no fun; find someone whom you can trust and start a dialogue—you will learn more and enjoy the process more too.

—James Lally

Learn more about Asia Week New York 2015.

Photo by Steinhorst at Paris Biennale, Sept. 2010

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