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ANTIQUES

A master of Chinese heirlooms

Zhou De Zhao knows all about antiquities. He learned the art of appraising art from his father, who was persecuted over his craft.

October 30, 2003|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Zhou DE ZHAO, an expert appraiser of Chinese antiquities, looked at the old scroll and what he saw astounded him.

He had been called to San Francisco by a man whose father had died recently and left behind some artwork. This particular piece, the man hoped, would fetch about $10,000.

But Zhou, who owns an antique store in Monterey Park, recognized the delicate brush strokes, the texture of the scroll: It was an original by Mi Fu, one of the most celebrated Song Dynasty calligraphers of the 11th century.

Its value? $4 million.

Discovering multimillion-dollar heirlooms is rare, but perhaps not as rare as Zhou's knowledge, which is gaining popularity within Southern California's Chinese community.

The 46-year-old native of Chengdu -- the capital city of Sichuan province in southwestern China -- has appeared on the front pages of Chinese-language newspapers and has been featured on a local Chinese radio show similar to PBS' "Antiques Roadshow."

"He's an expert in terms of Chinese culture in this community," says Han Chi, a reporter at the China Press, a San Gabriel Valley-based newspaper.

Much like a gifted artist or scientist is granted abode in the United States for their talents, Zhou was handed a green card five years ago in hopes that his expertise would help bolster the preservation of Chinese antiquities.

Interior designer Brad Blair says Oriental art and furniture are so popular in Los Angeles that he considers them an integral part of the city's look.

"It's incredibly appropriate and visually interesting to mix different cultures, old and new," Blair says. "That has emerged as our style -- a global sense of style -- where we take the best of all periods and cultures to adapt for personal use in someone's home."

Lark Mason, author of "Asian Art" and a regular appraiser on "Antiques Roadshow," says the market for Chinese antiques is developing worldwide, especially with China's blossoming economy generating added interest in more lavish, imperial works of art. He cites the recent sale of a $5.5-million Qing Dynasty ceramic at a famous auction house to a mainland Chinese collector, a purchase considered unprecedented because of its value and the origin of its buyer.

On our shores, Americans are more interested in aesthetically pleasing collectibles, Mason says, as opposed to the growing Chinese desire for historically or financially significant items. Nevertheless, the U.S. still has a trove of Chinese antiques brought back by Americans overseas who purchased the goods cheaply from locals who had no use for artifacts.

Other artifacts are brought back by Chinese immigrants, who seek out Zhou. He says 80% of his time is devoted to appraising people's antiques, which, more often than not, are valuable.

Zhou says more local Chinese and a few buyers from Beijing have come to his store because they believed art collecting was a more reliable investment than the stock market after the post-Sept. 11 downturn.

Zhou's success would not have been realized had his father not braved the political turmoil that ravaged China in the second half of the 20th century.

"Before my father died, he reminded me that Chinese culture was very profound and very great," Zhou says in Mandarin through an interpreter. "He said he hoped I could be an appraiser for years."

Zhou's father had a thriving business, but his house was raided and nearly everything was seized shortly after the 1949 Communist Revolution.

"They called it a 'donation,' " Zhou says.

But his father cunningly hid some of his most prized possessions, including ancient scrolls and porcelain. Occasionally, he'd sneak them out and show his son how to recognize age and telltale signs of famous artists.

Zhou never forgot those lessons, even as the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s again turned his father into a pariah for his association with China's past. The elder Zhou, who died in 1977, was forced to stand at a trial-like hearing during which workers lobbed insults at him, accusing him of being bourgeois.

The younger Zhou would leave for Japan in 1984, where he studied botany while continuing appraisal work. But Zhou found the cost of living too high there. A friend suggested he come to America, and in 1998 he settled in Alhambra with his wife, who had been an acrobatic entertainer in China.

The appraiser set up shop in a strip mall on the bustling corner of Atlantic Boulevard and Garvey Avenue in Monterey Park. It's easy to miss Pearl of the Orient Arts Co., which is hidden by a gas station and next to a cellphone business.

Inside, visitors are greeted by massive statues of Buddha. One nearly touches the ceiling and another depicts himon his side, stretching 10 feet long. The former is 150 years old and priced at $60,000, though many items cost as little as $10.

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