An antique business, nearly sunk by foreclosures, sees hope in a rising China

The U.S. housing crash pushed many antique businesses onto the trash heap. But on the other side of the world, China’s housing boom has helped lift the fortunes of dealers like Claudio Boltiansky.

Boltiansky’s business, Jan’s Fine French Antiques, based in South Los Angeles, now shops for Chinese items wherever possible, trying to meet the surge in demand for carved ivories, ceramics, porcelains, rhinoceros horns and furniture.

In China, says Boltiansky, “they’re building the types of homes you would find in Beverly Hills,” adding, “When you build these kinds of homes, you want these kinds of things.”

Boltiansky sold a large 19th-century tusk carving for $40,000 at an auction house. The tusk came from a wealthy Northern California doctor who called, sent pictures and brought the item to Boltiansky’s business.

Many of Jan’s clients have Chinese collections from the days when one could travel to China and buy exquisite jades, ivories and porcelains for next to nothing. Now, as more Chinese make it big -- and information and travel restrictions relax -- they’re buying back items scattered throughout the world. Boltiansky sold a jade carving not long ago for $70,000.

“Had we known everything then we know now, we would have been Jan’s & Co. Chinese Antiques,” he says.

The boon for Chinese antiques is a rare bright spot in a business that’s been buffeted by the foreclosure crisis. Fewer people are moving into spacious mansions decorated with European treasures. At the same time, many who lost their homes or downsized during the recession sold their antiques, flooding the market.

Eric Berg, whose two-story East Hollywood boutique is crammed with early California antiques, takes in inventory faster than he can sell it, due in part to the housing crisis. He first built his collection while working as a costume designer for music videos. Now his supply includes items people let go after moving out of their houses and downsizing. “Some of it’s been in my inventory for over three years,” Berg said.

The tough economy has separated the wheat form the chaff. Ted Birbilis, who runs the Golden California antiques show, says he’s seen the value of many items drop to a third of what they once were.

Meanwhile, Chinese urban disposable income has nearly doubled since the second quarter of 2006, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics. Residential construction has also risen.

This has meant big money in the antiques world. Dealers in California are on the lookout for Asian items likely to fetch vast sums abroad. This includes even the largest antiques businesses such as Bonhams, according to Dessa Goddard, the auction house’s San Francisco-based director of Asian works of art.

To leverage this market, Bonhams opened its first Hong Kong office in 2007 and is looking to hire more specialists there. It holds two Chinese art auctions there each year. The company opened its first Hong Kong office in 2007 and now stages two major auctions there each year. A Bonhams auction in December 2011 sold $12.8 million worth of Chinese furniture, much of which came from the collection of Eleanor Majors Carlisle, a significant figure in San Francisco society at the turn of the 19th century. A pair of recessed leg altar tables from the Carlisle estate brought in $2,714,500.

To be sure, the demand in Chinese goods had been surging even before the U.S. crashed. In 2005 Bonham’s sold a copper red dish from the Ming Dynasty to a dealer for $5.7 million. Carlisle had purchased the item during a trip to China during the 1920s. But the U.S. and European economic slump has made Chinese demand that much more important.

Jeffrey Ames, a Vietnam war veteran who took over Ames Auctioneers in Van Nuys from his father in 1973, oversees his crew as they load boxes of antiques into a truck just days before an auction. Ames Auctioneers recently sold a small bronze Chinese statue for almost $20,000, to Ames’ surprise. There were nine bidders, he said -- all based in Asia. “They were just fighting for it,” Ames said.

He realized about two years ago that Chinese items were an important part of the market. The first Chinese piece he sold was a Tang pottery horse he bought from a collector’s estate in Pasadena. He guessed it would sell for $3,000 to $5,000. “It brought in $38,000,” Ames said.

At the same time, European antiques and furniture, the core of Ames’ business, are piling up. Ames has an oak roll-top desk in the back of his warehouse that seven or eight years ago might have sold anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000. “Today,” Ames says, “it’s a couple hundred bucks.”

“The antique business definitely follows the real-estate market,” Ames says.

To be sure, there are the signature items that will fetch high prices in any market. Bolitansky recently acquired five chandeliers from the legendary Spelling Manor, a 123-room estate that producer Aaron Spelling’s widow sold for $85 million last summer.

Boltiansky closely follows real estate news, looking for whenever a large estate, anything over $10 million, changes hands or goes onto the market. Then, it’s harvest time for fine antique-buyers and sellers. “If someone is buying a French chateau in Bel-Air, they’re going to need French antiques,” Boltiansky says. “It’s a given.”

While Boltiansky and Ames lack the resources to advertise heavily and produce frequent auctions in buoyant markets such as Asia, their reputations allow them to compete abroad, they say. Even as China’s growth begins to slow, the question is where the next bull market will be. Says Boltiansky, “There’s always someone, someplace, who’s doing fantastic.”

About the author

Ryan Faughnder is a web contributor for Marketplace. Most recently, he was a business reporting intern for the Los Angeles Times and a senior editor at Neon Tommy.

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