2013.12.19 Thu, by
Scandal Breaks 20 Year Mystery

Scandalous allegations have rocked the art world in China in recent days, with two artists, Li Shan and Sun Liang, pointing fingers at Johnson Chang, a prominent Hong Kong dealer and owner of Hanart. It is claimed that works of art lost after the first contemporary (post-1978) exhibition of Chinese artists at the 1993 Venice Biennale have been found under mysterious circumstances in Hanart’s possession.

In a series of articles published on WallArt Post (墙报), an internet art magazine affiliated with the print publications ArtBank (艺术银行) and ArtTime (艺术时代), Li Shan and Sun Liang allege that they recovered works of art—thought to be lost for nearly 20 years—from Hanart, after they began legal action in 2012.

(Read the story here, in Chinese, and interviews with Li Shan, Sun Liang and others.)

(Update: response from Hanart—in Chinese)

(Update—Jan 10, 2014: Johnson Chang Responds to Artists’ Allegations)

In 1993, the first group of Chinese artists showed their works of art at the Venice Biennale in an unofficial exhibition organized with the help of Achille Bonito Oliva, Li Xianting, the noted Chinese art critic, and Francesca dal Lago (弗兰), then a cultural attaché at the Italian Embassy in Beijing. The participating artists are now well-known artists in their own right: Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Peili, Geng Jianyi, Xu Bing, Liu Ye, Yu Hong, Feng Mengbo, Wang Youshen, Yu Youhan, Li Shan, Sun Liang, Wang Ziwei, Song Haidong, and Ding Yi.

Work lost by Wang Guangyi at the 1993 Venice exhibition

At the time, without official permits, these artists’ works were shipped to Italy as “craft merchandise” (工艺品). However, when the exhibition was over and the works shipped back to Tianjin in early 1994, problems emerged at customs and were held for months. It was then decided that the works would first be re-shipped to Johnson Chang at Hanart in Hong Kong, since it might be easier to move the works back into China from there. Then, later in 1994, the artists got wind of the news that some of the works had been lost, but specific details as to where the works were lost are unclear.

Johnson Chang has claimed that the missing works were lost before they arrived in Hong Kong. Indeed, Sun Liang has produced a 1995 letter from Johnson Chang in which Chang stated that “many works are missing. Not a single work of Li Shan’s, yours, or Yu Hong. Wang Guangyi also has works missing, while a few others like Yu Youhan don’t have any missing” (translation by randian; original: 可是缺了很多作品。李山、你、余红(喻红,系笔误,编者按)一件作品都没有。王广义等也有人短缺作品。余友涵等几位没有短缺。)(link in Chinese)

Li Shan claims that he has always thought the works were at Hanart, and that over nearly 20 years has raised the issue with Johnson Chang (link in Chinese). Nearly three years ago, he also heard news from Sun Liang related to this: a certain unnamed artist in Shanghai who had lost works in this incident had been approached by Hanart to cooperate on future art projects and in exchange managed to get works back from Hanart (link in Chinese).

So in 2012, Li finally found a lawyer in New York and began legal proceedings. Evidence was prepared, the works were registered as lost, and legal letters were sent. This year, Johnson called to say the works had been found in storage, and on October 28 of this year, Li Shan and Sun Liang retrieved their works from Hanart (photos here). Johnson Chang was not present, according to the two (reports WallArt Post)

Wang Guangyi is also reported to have works returned from Johnson Chang a month ago (link in Chinese).

Such stunning allegations by WallArt Post (which claims to have video and sound recordings of interviews with Li Shan and Sun Liang) have raised a firestorm on the Chinese internet, particularly on weibo, weixin (WeChat) and art-ba-ba. The strange “rediscovery” of the works will certainly raise even more questions about the whereabouts of the other works—and indeed why they were only “discovered” recently and why it took so long for anyone to do anything about this.

(Update: response from Hanart—in Chinese)

Photos of Li Shan retaking works at Hanart
李山在汉雅轩验收交还的作品现场照片 (from Wallpost.cn)

Photos of Li Shan retaking works at Hanart
李山在汉雅轩验收交还的作品现场照片 (from Wallpost.cn)

Sun Liang at Hanart on Oct 28, 2013

Photos of Sun Liang, Li Shan, the lawyer, and others at Hanart Hong Kong