Meet our Latest On Line Auction Ming Things!: Jades of the Glorious Ming Dynasty!

Our new On Line Auction format is gaining interest! The theme of the new on line auction is Ming Things: jades of the Glorious Ming Dynasty. Superlative examples from our collection have been carefully selected. Objects exemplifying the Ming period love and admiration for scholar related objects are on offer.

The large reddish brown Bi Disc with Dragons is a classic and beloved subject representing the Ming dynasty admiration of ancient forms (Fanggu, emulating the ancient forms). This example is powerfully rendered and well displayed on a fitted stand. It would have the place of honor on the scholar’s desk and was a direct connection to the most ancient of forms in Chinese art.

The grey-black Bi Tong brush holder is another object useful for holding calligraphy brushes on the scholar’s desk. The grey black material is characteristic of the nephrite jade coming from Khotan in the far western region of China.
The material in the form of heavy boulders was carried by camel from Khotan to the jade working centers through the country. This piece represents the refinement and eclecticism of Ming Dynasty taste.

The scholars brush washer with original wooden case inlaid with mother of pearl is an essential part of the scholar’s desk. It was used to mix ink and water and served to load the calligraphy brush with ink. This example is a rich grey black coloration and shows the well worn use over centuries of use. This fine piece was once part of the Gump Family Collection of san Francisco. The Gump Family began the first emporium in America dealing in Jade in 1861.

The last piece in our auction is a well formed gilt gold on bronze seated figure of the Buddha resting on a fitted wooden stand. This piece would have been placed on the scholar’s desk along with other objects intended to inspire the calligrapher during his studies.

The Glorious Ming Dynasty is cherished for its love of refinement, economic success and respect for the best of ancient China. Be inspired and bid on one or more of these remarkable objects which have endured Five Centuries of collecting!

Sir Francis Drake & the Wanli Emperor

Recently I was asked to appraise a cylindrical cloisonne inlaid handle approximately 4.5 inches long. The owner found the piece near a site believed to the landing point in northern California where Sir Francis Drake landed for repairs to his ship the Golden Hind in 1579. I admit I was skeptical, but a competent appraiser never approaches an object with a preconceived opinion. The successful appraiser and dealer will always approach an object with an open mind and apply a methodology while examining the piece. I call this process “having a conversation with the work of art”.

The owner arrived t my office and handed me a plastic baggy which contained the object. As I took the piece out and placed on the examination pad I immediately observed a number of things which were obvious to the trained eye.

The piece was found entwined among the roots of a tree. The shaft of the handle of the calligraphy brush was somewhat crushed, revealing that the body was made from a rolled strip of metal with a seam. It was not cast from a solid piece of metal.

Second, the enamels inlaid were clay based, not glass based. The colors were of the Late Ming period palette of colors and most importantly, there were several colors contained in a single cell. This is a defining characteristic of Late Ming (1573-1620 Wanli Period cloisonne. The subject matter depicts a five clawed dragon chasing a flaming Pearl of Knowledge. This is one of the most popular subjects for ming period cloisonne. The condition of the piece is consistent with that of an object which has been exposed for a prolonged period of time to natural elements. There is no observed evidence of human manipulation of the condition of the handle.

 

I was pleased to tell the owner that for all of these reasons it was my opinion that the handle is Late Ming period transitional cloisonne consistent with a Wanli period date. The owner was very pleased to hear this since that dating falls within the range of Sir Francis Drake’s landing in Northern California. While I have no observable evidence of the Drake connection to this specific piece, there is no ambiguity in my opinion that the piece is of the period. It is intellectually pleasing to consider how a Late Ming Dynasty object might come into the possession of Sir Francis. One theory is that the object was taken as booty from one of the Spanish galleons plying the China trade which Sir Francis captured. The trade from Peru where Spain minted silver Pieces of Eight to be used as payment for Chinese trade goods was the Amazon Prime of the Sixteenth Century. Sir Francis was a privateer whose mission was to capture as much loot as possible for his Queen, himself and his crew. It was a grand time to be alive! If only this handsome brush handle could speak! What a story it might tell!

Providing appraisals to people and viewing interesting works of art is pleasant detective work which keeps me in the trade. If you have an interesting piece and seek expert opinion, feel free to contact me. My hourly rate for providing appraisal service is reasonable and I can provide non contact appraisals by emailing photos taken with a cell phone camera in most instances. I am available to travel to inspect works of art on site, if required.

Avoiding Fakes: Does Scientific Testing “Work”?

Another “blast from the past” essay I wrote which appeared in Orientations Magazine in 1995. Enjoy!

One of the precise indicators of an upwardly mobile art market is an increase in spurious works of art. Fakers, above all, are denizens of the market place. It may truthfully be said that fakes delineate the evolution of taste and fads in collecting with surprising precision. Their creation is a response to demand which is an ever-changing reflection of human desires. Further, fakes provide an understanding of the people who make them and those for whom the fakes are made.

 

Chinese jade is at the present time experiencing an increase in demand and the attention of both beginning collectors and connoisseurs alike. Following each wave of archaeological discovery, spurious copies have entered the market place. A subtle difference however, has emerged which separates the present from past trends in fakery. An increase in technological sophistication has been brought to bear on the efforts of the fakers. Scholars in other disciplines, such as Chinese metalwork and porcelain, have bemoaned the fact that fakers are often one step ahead of the academics and dealers who catch on to them. It is a dubious tribute to the ingenuity of the human mind that enables the faker to simulate both the obvious and more subtle tell-tale signs of authenticity.

 

Sadly, each society and generation fakes the art it covets most. Roman copies of Greek sculpture kept generations of sculptors basically producing both imitations and copies. In our own lifetime, the works of Picasso, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, Manet, and Dali have been copied and imitated. Indeed, many paintings which Lord Joseph Duveen sold to American millionaires early in this century were copied so that the seller would have a replica to hang on the mantle. Fakers move quickly to take advantage of the high prices produced by a new collecting trend before their activities undermine the market altogether. Witness the strong auction record prices of white eighteenth century jades. This writer has begun to encounter an increasing number of spurious copies executed with amazing sophistication.

 

Consider for a moment what constitutes a fake. Aside from a question of interest on the part of the faker, there are copies, imitations, and replicas. Copies are executed based on an original work of art. Many fake jades in the market place today are copied from published examples of excavated artifacts. The copy at first appears enticing, but under close scrutiny is less than convincing. Once the spell is broken, the ugly and unsatisfying truth emerges. Imitations are simulations which mimic the attributes of the original. Again, the imitation is less than satisfying if viewed in the bright light of day. Replicas of art objects attempt with varying degrees of success to reproduce a work of art. The replica is a place holder, not meant to imitate or copy.

 

It is important to understand that a jade piece emulating a Han (206 BC-AD 220) jade done in the Song period (960-1279) is not the same thing as a fake. In Chinese art, the dominant mode of activity is a desire to maintain and rework traditional forms and subjects. Nostalgia for the past and emulation of its achievements is desirable. Emulation is good since it allows each period to interpret and modify traditional forms. Misrepresentation of an imitation as “the real thing,” however, is fakery.

 

Unfortunately, when a fake is discovered, it severs a direct link with the hand that made it. Even though the work remains the same, the aesthetic response to it is profoundly changed. If we are smart, we will learn from the experience and avoid making the same mistake twice. From experience, most buyers know that the price paid for a seeming bargain cannot be for the real thing. They are buying an illusion and delude themselves. This is the faker’s main weapon in perpetrating his fraud on the collector. If the work is too good to be true, then it usually is.

 

The buyer of the fake keeps the faker in business. The real loss resulting from the discovery of a fake is not only monetary. For the person cheated, it loosens the hold on our perception and understanding of the past. One of the strongest tools a collector possesses for uncovering fakes is the most obvious. This is simply the fact that a faker, whether he copies, imitates, or replicates, can never assume the mind-set of the artist of an original work and period. Fakers add flourishes and details without really understanding the symbolism and purpose behind the original concept. Familiarity with jades of a particular period enables the collector to understand why an artist used certain motifs as well as the stylistic and physical approach to the jade.

 

Finally, our concept of authenticity depends on the relationship between the work of art itself and the period to which it is attributed. Determination of authenticity requires a methodology counting on a consistency of both stylistic and physical analysis of the object. Looking at the work of art with a critical eye is the number one defense for detecting fakery. It is misleading to think that scientific advances and scholarly expertise alone can solve all problems. However, an open, questioning mind can eliminate many of the more obvious pitfalls. Ask yourself, is this work of art convincing? Is it stylistically and physically consistent? What is the artist trying to convey? Does the object exhibit logicality? Does it make sense? Be cautious, selective, and assume the work of art is guilty until proven correct. The thrill and passion of collecting outweighs its negative side. Never for a moment let the faker deny you the pleasure of collecting. We are all seekers of truth about works of art and the direct link with those who made them.

 

 

Sam Bernstein is director of S. Bernstein & Co., a gallery specializing in Chinese jade works of art in San Francisco

© 1995 S. Bernstein & Co.

As published in Orientations, September 1995, page 110.

 

Real or Fake? Fishing in the Jade Pond- 25 years Later

 

 

 

 

It’s hard to believe 25 years has passed since this essay I wrote appeared in Orientations Magazine in 1995! In the intervening years, nothing has changed. I believe I “got it right” long ago. I am pleased to publish my essay again here in my blog. Enjoy!

 

One of the precise indicators of an upwardly mobile art market is an increase in spurious works of art. Fakers, above all, are denizens of the market place. It may truthfully be said that fakes delineate the evolution of taste and fads in collecting with surprising precision. Their creation is a response to demand which is an ever-changing reflection of human desires. Further, fakes provide an understanding of the people who make them and those for whom the fakes are made.

 

Chinese jade is at the present time experiencing an increase in demand and the attention of both beginning collectors and connoisseurs alike. Following each wave of archaeological discovery, spurious copies have entered the market place. A subtle difference however, has emerged which separates the present from past trends in fakery. An increase in technological sophistication has been brought to bear on the efforts of the fakers. Scholars in other disciplines, such as Chinese metalwork and porcelain, have bemoaned the fact that fakers are often one step ahead of the academics and dealers who catch on to them. It is a dubious tribute to the ingenuity of the human mind that enables the faker to simulate both the obvious and more subtle tell-tale signs of authenticity.

 

Sadly, each society and generation fakes the art it covets most. Roman copies of Greek sculpture kept generations of sculptors basically producing both imitations and copies. In our own lifetime, the works of Picasso, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, Manet, and Dali have been copied and imitated. Indeed, many paintings which Lord Joseph Duveen sold to American millionaires early in this century were copied so that the seller would have a replica to hang on the mantle. Fakers move quickly to take advantage of the high prices produced by a new collecting trend before their activities undermine the market altogether. Witness the strong auction record prices of white eighteenth century jades. This writer has begun to encounter an increasing number of spurious copies executed with amazing sophistication.

 

Consider for a moment what constitutes a fake. Aside from a question of interest on the part of the faker, there are copies, imitations, and replicas. Copies are executed based on an original work of art. Many fake jades in the market place today are copied from published examples of excavated artifacts. The copy at first appears enticing, but under close scrutiny is less than convincing. Once the spell is broken, the ugly and unsatisfying truth emerges. Imitations are simulations which mimic the attributes of the original. Again, the imitation is less than satisfying if viewed in the bright light of day. Replicas of art objects attempt with varying degrees of success to reproduce a work of art. The replica is a place holder, not meant to imitate or copy.

 

It is important to understand that a jade piece emulating a Han (206 BC-AD 220) jade done in the Song period (960-1279) is not the same thing as a fake. In Chinese art, the dominant mode of activity is a desire to maintain and rework traditional forms and subjects. Nostalgia for the past and emulation of its achievements is desirable. Emulation is good since it allows each period to interpret and modify traditional forms. Misrepresentation of an imitation as “the real thing,” however, is fakery.

 

Unfortunately, when a fake is discovered, it severs a direct link with the hand that made it. Even though the work remains the same, the aesthetic response to it is profoundly changed. If we are smart, we will learn from the experience and avoid making the same mistake twice. From experience, most buyers know that the price paid for a seeming bargain cannot be for the real thing. They are buying an illusion and delude themselves. This is the faker’s main weapon in perpetrating his fraud on the collector. If the work is too good to be true, then it usually is.

 

The buyer of the fake keeps the faker in business. The real loss resulting from the discovery of a fake is not only monetary. For the person cheated, it loosens the hold on our perception and understanding of the past. One of the strongest tools a collector possesses for uncovering fakes is the most obvious. This is simply the fact that a faker, whether he copies, imitates, or replicates, can never assume the mind-set of the artist of an original work and period. Fakers add flourishes and details without really understanding the symbolism and purpose behind the original concept. Familiarity with jades of a particular period enables the collector to understand why an artist used certain motifs as well as the stylistic and physical approach to the jade.

 

Finally, our concept of authenticity depends on the relationship between the work of art itself and the period to which it is attributed. Determination of authenticity requires a methodology counting on a consistency of both stylistic and physical analysis of the object. Looking at the work of art with a critical eye is the number one defense for detecting fakery. It is misleading to think that scientific advances and scholarly expertise alone can solve all problems. However, an open, questioning mind can eliminate many of the more obvious pitfalls. Ask yourself, is this work of art convincing? Is it stylistically and physically consistent? What is the artist trying to convey? Does the object exhibit logicality? Does it make sense? Be cautious, selective, and assume the work of art is guilty until proven correct. The thrill and passion of collecting outweighs its negative side. Never for a moment let the faker deny you the pleasure of collecting. We are all seekers of truth about works of art and the direct link with those who made them.

 

 

Sam Bernstein is director of S. Bernstein & Co., a gallery specializing in Chinese jade works of art in San Francisco

© 1995 S. Bernstein & Co.

As published in Orientations, September 1995, page 110.

 

Monday Night Study Class

Are art dealers born or made? Perhaps a combination of both. I hope you will enjoy the following excerpt from The Emperor & the Motorcycle Mechanic by Sam Bernstein

Available  on Amazon in Kindle format. 

Monday Night Study Class

 

In 1962 my family belonged to Shaareth Israel the only Jewish congregation in Lubbock, Texas, with about 200 members out of a total population of 128,000. For a number of years, the congregation was so small that it was difficult to hire and retain a full time rabbi. The first rabbi turned out not to have been ordained and was let go. This caused some dissent among the members because the rabbi was popular among his supporters. Rabbi Alexander S. Kline came to us with his wife and life partner Eleanore to take over the needs of the congregation. What a team they were! Eleanore was his intellectual partner, fellow travel companion, managed his household and drove him around, since the rabbi had never learned to drive.

The white-haired rabbi had erect posture and a serious demeanor. He did, however, enjoy joke telling. My father would go into the rabbi’s chambers while he was putting on his robes before the Friday night service and tell him the latest jokes he’d heard on a recent trip to New York City. I was surprised when Dad and the rabbi exchanged some “off-color jokes.” The rabbi’s wife was garrulous and had a sparkle in her eye and a quick wit. Once before the Friday night services I asked the rabbi what God looked like. He thought for a moment and turned to his wife and said, “Darling, this is a question for you.”

Without missing a beat, Mrs. Kline looked at me thoughtfully and answered, “Sam, if God wanted us to know what He looks like, He would have told us.”

One year, around the Christmas holiday, the rabbi came to our home for a visit. In the living room was a tall tree with holiday lights and a silver Star of David adorning the top branch. There were wrapped presents under the tree. The rabbi stopped and stared at the gaily lighted tree. “Mrs. Bernstein, may I ask what is this tree?”

“Why Rabbi that’s our Hanukkah bush,” Mom replied.

“I don’t recall hearing about those,” the rabbi replied.

Rabbi Kline had a reverence and love of learning about great art. For him, religion and art were intertwined. This was part of his Hungarian upbringing in a reform Jewish family. During his studies at the rabbinical seminary he chose to write his thesis about the historical tension between Judaism and art. He began to assemble a collection of images of paintings and ceramics cut from books and magazines. He pasted them onto brown wrapping paper, then sorted them into bundles that he tied with string. As Hollace Weiner writes in Jewish Stars in Texas, Rabbi Kline believed that “Art is the eternal articulator of the soul of humanity … the permanent expression and record of his best experiences.”

The rabbi invited adult members of the congregation to meet at his residence on Monday evenings at 8 p.m. for a lecture on art topics. Each was carefully prepared and illustrated with the images from the rabbi’s collection of cut-and-pasted photos. I was ten years old at the time, but my interest was strong and I was given special permission to attend along with my father, who also served at the time as the president of the congregation. After the lecture, the adults were served a glass of wine with sliced apples, cheddar cheese and Ritz crackers. I was treated to a glass of cold apple juice.

The lectures sparked my interest in art and more importantly, indicated my acceptance as an equal by the adults in the Monday Night Art Study group. Rabbi Kline continued to lecture on art at the local university long after my family moved to Dallas in 1966. The Rabbi passed in 1982 and his collection of art images resides at the Museum of Texas Tech University where a room is named after him. Every time I sip apple juice, I recall those Monday Nights with the Rabbi and Mrs. Kline.

 

Appraisals; How, Where, When, Why

Everyday I receive calls from people seeking appraisals, when in fact they want to sell their art. Exactly, what is an appraisal? How do you find an appraiser? What is the appraisal process? How much does it cost?

An appraisal is an opinion about the authenticity, identification, dating and monetary value of an object. Different purposes have different values. Insurance appraisals seek to determine the replacement value in the event of loss. Appraisals for tax purposes will determine the Fair Market value which is defined as the price a willing buyer and a willing seller might reasonably be expected to agree upon without duress or coercion.

Not all appraisers are created equal. Appraising specific categories such as Jade, Paintings, ceramics and metalwork requires specialized knowledge. I am a specialist appraiser in Jade, metalwork, ancient glass and sculpture. I provide my opinion to museums, collectors, governmental agencies, insurance companies, estate administrators and other appraisers. Choose an appraiser who knows the area you wish to have appraised.

The initial contact with the appraiser is very important for both parties. There has to be a modicum of trust on each side. Tell the appraiser what you have, how many pieces and where they were acquired. Be organized. Have a master list of the objects. This will save you time and money. It will make the appraiser’s job more efficient. Photography can be done with cell phone cameras, and the images easily sent to the appraiser.

The appraiser will provide a proposal of how much time will be required and his hourly rate. It may be necessary for the appraiser to travel on site to examine the objects. In this event, the client will pay a daily rate plus reasonable expenses such as travel expense, meals and incidentals. The results of the appraisal may be given either in an oral report or a written report. Oral reports are more economical. Written reports are required for tax purposes and require more time for preparation and therefore will cost the client more.Remember, an appraisal is the expert opinion about the objects. It is not a statement of fact.

And finally, an appraisal is for the sole use of the client and is not to be used to flog his objects to third parties. Nor shall the name of the appraiser be used to market the objects which are the appraisal subject. Choose your appraiser with care, be truthful, provide all invoices and paperwork. A successful result is a win win situation for all involved. Good luck!

Our 29th. Anniversary!

I began S. Bernstein & Co. on July 16, 1991. This month marks our 29th. year in business! Hard to believe almost three decades has come and gone. You might say that this year is the the most momentous one in our history. You would be correct. In April, in response to the Covid-19 Pandemic, the Fairmont Hotel San Francisco temporarily shut down. Since our lease was about up, I decided to take this opportunity and transition from retail gallery to private dealer handling exquisite jades to a select clientele. So far, this has worked out exceedingly well. We have handled some great pieces and performed non contact appraisals  for clients in Japan, Germany, across the U.S. and here in the Bay area. This format has reduced our overhead significantly and I am able to offer pieces at lower prices to my clients. It is also a lot less stressful not having to commute 2 hours a day in the worst traffic in America while managing and staffing a gallery full time. If you own or manage a business, I am sure you will agree it is difficult to find qualified motivated young people to work in a retail setting.

On the occasion of my company’s 29th birthday, I want to say thank you to all of the hundreds of clients and friends who have wished us well over the decades. I especially want to thank my gallery directors and assistants who have worked diligently and performed their duties with dedication and care.  Being an art dealer is one of the greatest careers a person can experience. Thank you!

 

Sam Bernstein

Excerpt from The Emperor & the Motorcycle Mechanic “The Case of the Crystal Buddha” by Sam Bernstein

 

 

The Case of the Crystal Buddha

 

I am amazed at how great things find their way into my hands. During the 1980s a magnificent quartz crystal figure of the Buddha was sold at auction in London. At the time, it was catalogued as an Indian work of art of the eighteenth century. In actuality, it was a Burmese treasure standing almost 15 inches in height and rendered from a solid boulder of quartz crystal sometime during the twelfth century. After being sold by an American dealer, it was not seen again for many years.

 

Almost a decade later, my phone rang. The caller explained that he was living on an estate near Salinas, California, about a two-hour drive from San Francisco. His name was John, and he gave me directions to his home. As he was describing the crystal Buddha, I knew that a quartz work of art that size was significant, and the details confirmed in my mind that this was the fabulous Buddha I had seen a decade before. I told John that I would drive down the next morning and would be at his house by 9 am.

As I drove along Highway One, I could hardly contain my excitement. John’s directions were good, but I still managed to get lost twice in the Salinas hills. Finally I located the right direction and drove down the private road to a farmhouse. John came outside to greet me. I got the distinct impression that he did not receive many visitors and that he had the makings of a recluse. He showed me around the property that contained, among other things, a small zoo with wild boar (a large wild boar named Chester was allowed to roam freely) together with several mountain lions and a leopard. John showed me his collection of high performance motorcycles in a large storage shed on his property. Since Laguna Seca raceway is only two or three miles away, John told me he enjoyed riding his bikes on the racetrack for fun.

 

The name of the estate “Brigadoon” was a play on his name. John explained that he was one of the heirs to the Briggs and Stratton engine-manufacturing firm. To me he seemed a wonderfully unaffected man who lived life to the fullest. Inside the house, John introduced me to his lovely wife and two small children. The house was what I expected it to be after being shown his farm; neat, and unassuming. In the master bedroom, next to the bed was a large caliber anti-tank recoilless rifle and several other weapons were hanging from the walls.

 

At the foot of the bed there was a silver-colored metal case. John opened the case carefully and removed an object wrapped in large bath towels. As he unwrapped the towels, the almost perfectly clear quartz crystal Buddha appeared. It was even larger and more beautiful than I remembered it from ten years before. In the center of the forehead was a natural dark inclusion of a shiny blue-black coloration. John told me that this natural inclusion represented the awareness and level of enlightenment that the Buddha had attained. The object was breathtaking, and certainly a significant cultural object. There was a purity and serenity that emanated from the sculpture.

We agreed to a price, and I carefully wrapped the quartz Buddha and placed it back into the metal carrying case. Needless to say, the drive back home to San Francisco was exciting. I continually looked in the back seat of the car to make sure that the piece was still there and that I was not dreaming. I tried to focus on the clients whom I thought would like to own such an important piece. Several came to mind, and I resolved to place a price on the crystal Buddha and stick to it.

 

The quartz crystal Buddha appeared in my second exhibition and volume Chinese Art From Distant Centuries. During my participation in the 1994 San Francisco Fall Antique Show, the crystal Buddha was displayed proudly in a custom case at the entrance to the booth. It quickly became the talk of the show. Ultimately however, the time came to part with this amazing spiritual treasure, and it was sold to a dear friend and client living in the Midwest. The hunt and the chase of great works of art is what makes my career so exciting.

 

 

New Excerpt From The Emperor & the Motorcycle Mechanic-Memoir of an Art Dealer

Thanks for the positive feedback. Herewith, another Chapter from my Memoir for your edification. A true story…!

 

The Case of the Naked Man

The handsome blond-haired man with the rather large green parrot perched on his shoulder walked into my gallery and began to browse around. I noticed he was well tanned and his haircut was impeccably maintained. I also noticed he was completely naked, wearing only the green bird on his shoulder.

“May I help you?” I asked.
“No, thank you. I just would like to browse,” he replied cordially.
I dialed the building security and asked for some assistance. Two minutes later the

head of security, George Stiles, stood in my doorway. George was six feet, four inches tall and had bright red hair. He weighed a conservative 280 pounds. George had what might be called an intimidating old school Irish cop’s presence.

“Hey! Youse with the bird, come here. I want to talk with you,” he said to the naked man.

“Is there a problem?” the naked man replied.

“Yeah, we don’t allow any birds in the building. You’ll have to take it outside,” George told the man. And with that, the naked man was escorted off the property. I never saw the man or his bright green parrot again.

Bonus: Excerpt from Sam Bernstein’s The Emperor & the Motorcycle Mechanic-Memoir of an Art Dealer

 

 

 

I hope you will enjoy reading this Chapter from my newest publication, the Emperor & the Motorcycle Mechanic-Memoir of an Art Dealer, available in Kindle from Amazon.com $9.99 The volume has 85 Chapters, 67 Color Photos, 260 Pages.

The Case of the Missing Lock Box

 

A lawyer representing a major East Coast bank called me to retain my services in performing a forensic appraisal. A customer was suing the bank for $2,000,000 for the loss of the contents of his lockbox. Not only had the contents of the lockbox mysteriously disappeared, but also the lockbox itself had gone missing! The client alleged that the contents of the box were priceless jadeite jewelry smuggled out of China during the communist revolution of 1949. The story provided that the jadeite jewelry was given by a Nationalist general in exchange for a boat with which to escape to Taiwan. The customer’s father brought the jewelry and a small sculpture along when he immigrated to the United States. The bank’s lawyer was skeptical about an appraisal the customer had obtained from a well-known East Coast Oriental art dealer.

“How can someone appraise something that they have never seen and of which there are no photographs?” he asked.

“Send me a copy of the customer’s appraisal and let me look it over,” I replied.

The next day the paperwork arrived. It was apparent that the appraiser had extrapolated fair market values from the verbal description of the plaintiff by finding comparable jewelry sold at auction. I explained to the lawyer that any appraisal using a solely verbal description could not be relied upon—especially when it came to jadeite jewelry.

“If you can’t see it, you can’t appraise it, especially when it comes to jadeite jewelry. A slight nuance in color will increase the value of a jadeite piece many times.” I told him. “There are other issues here. How did the pieces enter the United States? Were the goods declared and duties paid? Are there any appraisals previously in writing by a competent appraiser who has actually seen the goods?”

Then I mapped out a scenario of what probably happened. The customer was known to be a gambler and loan shark in the East Coast Chinese community. He had lost heavily and owed out IOUs to the kind of people who can shorten your life span considerably. The customer’s father had hidden the jewelry under his bed for decades. When the old man was preparing to visit Mainland China, the son urged his father to hand over the jewelry to him to lock up in the bank safe. The customer entered the safe box room with a bank teller who inserted her key into the lock box. Then she left for a moment to assist another customer. Seeing his opportunity, the customer put the jewelry into the lock box, and put the box into his backpack. He then closed the door to his box and turned his key to lock it and removed the key. The bank teller came back into the room and turned her key to lock the box and then they both left.

Six months later, the customer returned, inserted his key and opened the door to find the box and its contents missing. In the meantime he had sold the jewelry to pay off his gambling debts and keep his head intact. To save face with the old man, the young man blamed the bank and filed a lawsuit seeking reimbursement for his “loss.” The bank offered to settle, but the young man was adamant. The judge ruled in favor of the bank. Then, since the father had given the jewelry to the son, there was a taxable gift created. The judge announced that he was obliged to report that fact to the Internal Revenue Service. The son would owe taxes on the $2,000,000 value he had claimed under sworn oath that the jewelry was worth.