June 06, 2006:

[achtung! kunst] *mao-market* : Looking for Mao? Try a Trinket Site, Not the Yangtze

nyt, may 25, 2006
Looking for Mao? Try a Trinket Site, Not the Yangtze
By Michelle Slatalla

THERE are few things I don't like about overseas travel other than
realizing, as the plane lifts off for a 13-hour flight, that the best
movie they're showing in economy is ''Big Momma's House 2.''

During a trip to China earlier this month, I didn't mind the jet lag,
the 15-hour time difference or even the time I went out and forgot the
Beijing street map in the hotel room.

But there's one thing I really hate, and that is when my husband turns
out to know more about shopping than I do.

It happened at the huge Panjiayuan buyer-beware flea market in Beijing,
which collectors haunt at sunrise and where tourists troll for trinkets
all day long. As far as we could see were aisles of brass Buddhas, piles
of glass beads, old typewriters, bolts of silk, dusty framed
photographs, strands of pearls and yellowed posters from the Cultural

My husband homed in on a shelf of kitschy porcelain statues.

''I love this,'' he said, pointing to a foot-tall statue of two peasants
riding a shiny silver rocket. One peasant held a scroll inscribed with a
proclamation that translated, roughly, as, ''China will exceed the
United States and the United Kingdom.''

To me it looked tacky. ''You can't be serious,'' I said, eyeing the
statue's garish colors.

''And this one,'' he said, pointing to a statue of Mao Zedong waving to
a crowd from a sedan.

The seller wanted 300 yuan (about $37) for the Mao statue and 200 yuan
(about $24) for the rocket.

''Just get one,'' I pleaded.

''You'll regret it,'' my husband said, buying Mao.

''I will not regret it,'' I said.

Two days later, I regretted it. It's funny how something that looks
common amid the clutter of a giant flea market can be transformed into
something that looks striking in a different context like, say, sitting
on a coffee table in northern California.

Now I loved that statue and wished I had another one, too. And I had a
lot of questions. What was the history of these unusual pieces that
evoked the Cultural Revolution? And where could I get my hands on that

I turned to the Internet for answers. And that's where I learned, almost
faster than I could type the keyword query ''porcelain Mao in car,''
that my husband has a better eye for a story than I do.

These days, I learned, all kinds of memorabilia from the Cultural
Revolution have become highly collectible; in addition to porcelain
statues, the category includes vintage posters and ticking Mao mantel
clocks. And you don't have to travel to the Panjiayuan flea market to shop.

At Culturegems.com, I saw Mao's face painted on a porcelain disk ($160).
Artelino.com, an online auction site, sells Chinese propaganda posters.
At www.Easterncurio.com, I even saw the same statue of Mao in a car,
described as Item No. D1S0041. ''Write to Eastern Curio Shanghai Ltd. or
call 0086-13621990301 for further enquire,'' the site instructed.

I sent an e-mail message. ''Can you tell me how old it is and how much
it costs?'' I wrote. The response was quick, but a little vague: 1968
and $195, plus unspecified shipping costs to the United States.

Then I stumbled across the site of a dealer named Victoria Edison,
1930shanghai.com; her large selection of memorabilia included Mao on a
dinner plate ($25). As I browsed through pictures -- Mao on an ashtray
($20) and Mao on a jewelry box ($25) -- I came across an item that made
me wince.

I clicked for a bigger image and saw another porcelain statue of
peasants on a rocket that looked just like the one we could have bought
for $24 in Beijing.

The price was $209.

Cursing, I phoned Mrs. Edison, whose store is in Berkeley, Calif., near
my house.

''It's a very well-known piece,'' said Mrs. Edison, who with her
husband, James, wrote the book ''Cultural Revolution Posters &
Memorabilia'' (Schiffer, 2005). ''When we were approached to do the
book, at that time we were selling primarily to Europe, but now the
trend has made its way to the U.S.''

Mrs. Edison, whose parents and grandparents lived through the Cultural
Revolution, said she grew curious about memorabilia from that era during
a trip to China in the early 1990's.

''I was interested because my folks went through it, my grandfather was
in jail during that period for merely having a brother who went to
Taiwan,'' she said. ''I was in China and browsing in the same flea
market you did, where I saw posters. I thought, 'Wow.' ''

I asked, ''Why don't people think there's something unseemly about
collecting relics from an era that brought so many people so much pain?''

Mrs. Edison said: ''I don't think people collect Mao because he's cool,
because everyone who went through that period thinks he was crazy and
power hungry. But the pieces represent the people, too, and what they
went through and what they were like. My grandfather finds this
fascinating. By talking about it, we won't forget history.''

In the 1960's, millions of porcelain pieces were made for export in
provincial ceramic factories.

The intended market was countries friendly to China and people who had
left the mainland, Mrs. Edison said. ''There were two industries that
were able to flourish when other businesses were shut down. Ceramics
factories and printing companies flourished because they made propaganda

I told her my husband bought Mao in a car at the flea market.

''The car piece is considered one of the best pieces of that period,''
she said. ''But there are a lot of reproductions, and it's almost
impossible to tell, because they're using the same molds to make them.
My assumption, when I shop in China, is that it's a reproduction unless
I know for sure that it was one of the pieces sitting in a warehouse
that wasn't distributed during the Cultural Revolution.

He paid about $37, I said.

''Probably fake, but even so, that's pretty good,'' she said. ''He must
know how to bargain.''

''He has a good eye,'' I said.

Then I made an appointment to go to her shop to look at the rocket. It
may be expensive, but he deserves it.




with kind regards,

Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)



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