BY JANET Y. CHANG
From the Editor: After our first publication about these rare $36 Million Chinese Ming Dynasty statuettes, The World Art News received further questions regarding their provenance, authenticity, valuation, and who may be the potential buyer of these artifacts. For answers we went straight to the source and took an in-depth interview with their current owner, prof. Mikhail Tamoikin, Ph.D.
Prof. Tamoikin was kind enough to provide us with detailed written answers to our initial questions and tough follow-ups, under the condition that they will be published in their entirety without any changes or editing. We agreed and are now happy to present this exclusive interview to our readers!
Exclusive interview with prof. Mikhail Tamoikin, Ph.D.
Professor Tamoikin, what do you think about China, their art, and culture?
I would invite everyone to think about the meteoric rise of China over the past decade. The leading mass media are full of extraordinary headlines such as: “China surpassed the United States in innovation”, “China successfully tested a hypersonic rocket”, “China launched a thermonuclear artificial sun”, “China unveiled a laser TV that folds into a tube”, “Chinese astronauts went into outer space”, etc. In my opinion, one of the reasons China, that only 70 years ago ranked 35th in the world, has made such a powerful leap is due to their strategic elevation of Chinese national culture to the rank of supreme importance.
Culture is one of the four pillars of the foundation of any nation. Having taken in the early 1990s a course in world leadership, Chinese rulers began to invest large funds (up to 27% of GDP) into their cultural sphere on an annual basis. For comparison, Russia and Ukraine spend only 0.3-0.6% of their GDP on their cultural development. This far-sighted approach of Chinese leaders during the last 3 decades immediately affected the value of their historical artifacts. The number of transactions with Chinese rarities around the world has skyrocketed to fantastic numbers! For example, at an auction household items of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) are now selling for millions – consider these examples:
What is the provenance of these Chinese statuettes and how did they come into your possession?
Any world-class rarity, especially one in a private collection, gains “historical weight” only after a thorough study of its provenance – the chronology of change of its owners. Regarding these ancient statuettes, we can objectively speak only about four owners and I am the fourth.
I’ve purchased them for $14 thousand in the year 2000 in Yalta, Crimea from the descendants of a Soviet officer, who, along with all the royal treasures which included these unique statuettes, took the last Emperor of China, Pu Yi (1906-1967), as a prisoner of war in 1945.
Furthermore, the inscription on the bottom of these carvings’ attributes them to Chinese Emperor Chenghua (1447-1487) who is believed to be the original owner of these artifacts. The evidence that the statuettes belonged to two rulers of China allows us to conclude that starting from Chenghua it’s likely that all Chinese Emperors owned these statuettes at one point or another. Due to this, the cultural and monetary value of these artifacts could be immense.
To what experts have you shown these statuettes and what kind of a response did you receive?
I began my research of these artifacts in 2018. First, I contacted the Museum of Chinese History in Australia. They told me that according to the markings on the bottom these statuettes were created during the rule of Emperor Chenghua. This conclusion was confirmed by specialists from the Lithuanian Gudinas Restoration Centre. They established that the structure and composition of the ivory these statuettes are made from was 300 to 1000 years old. Finally, the third conclusion the experts made was that these statuettes aren’t just miniature sculptures, but possibly some kind of vessels, with plugs at the top.
It would be an international sensation if something inside them were to be discovered. Even if there is nothing inside, an accurate chemical analysis will answer the question about what was stored inside these statuettes. There’s already a viable theory that inside each statuette are the ashes of the ruling couple of the Ming Dynasty, and possibly the ashes of Emperor Chenghua and his last wife. This version has a basis in the form of numerous facts about other vessels in which the Chinese rulers and high nobility were buried.
I will conclude answer with a declaration that there has been no opening of these statuettes since they were purchased by me in the year 2000. Also, it is my intention to conduct an analysis of these statuettes in a specialized laboratory in one of EU countries in the presence of officials from the Government of China as well as the media.
Do similar statuettes exist anywhere else in the world?
Yes, we know of one in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. However, there are significant differences: the form of ownership is different – my statuettes are privately owned and have no restrictions; Smithsonian has one item while I have a pair; there are differences in size, age, and substance of what is depicted; my statuettes have a colorful layer; my statuettes have an inscription that gives precise identification; our figurines were owned by Chinse Emperors; my statuettes are container vessels, etc. These differences allow me to conclude that the value (tangible, intangible, and monetary) of these artifacts is significantly higher than of the one in Washington.
Why $36 million?
I would like to reveal all the nuances of a scientifically calculated market value in the next interview, as it will require a very thorough explanation. Nevertheless, to give an understanding where I stand value-wise, I state that as of this January my price for the two statuettes is $36 million. It is the price for which a small Ming Dynasty teacup was sold in 2014 at Sotheby’s auction.
I’m convinced that critics will find it difficult to argue with me, considering that: (a) the ceramic cup yields in difficulty of creation to the ivory statuettes; (b) the cup is one, the figurines are two; (c) the figurines may contain a secret – in the form of a container, etc.. And I suggest taking a look at these unique statuettes from the following perspective: today, the most expensive masterpiece in the world is Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” (1452-1519) that was appraised by the French government commission in 2002 at $2.2 billion when there was a question of selling it to pay off the country’s debt. Taking into account the time factor (annual growth of at least 8-10%), this painting by the logic of a professional appraiser today has a value of at least $12.5 billion. The painting was created at approximately the same historical time as our Chinese statuettes. In 2017, another Da Vinci-related work, “Salvator Mundi”, sold at Christie’s for $450 million. To date, this deal is the unsurpassed world record for the actual sale of an art object. Here it’s important to point out the fact that out of six authoritative experts who examined the “Salvator Mundi”, four gave a negative opinion. Nevertheless, Christie’s was able to convince the buyers, among them the Saudi Prince, of its authenticity and the sale took place. When it comes to my statuettes, seven out of seven authoritative experts gave a positive opinion about them. In addition, for more analysis, I encourage everyone to look at the following facts regarding the price formation of the “Salvator Mundi” painting:
– In 1900 it sold in Richmond for $68
– In 2005 it sold in New York for $10,000
– In 2013 it sold in Paris for $75 million
– In 2014 it sold in London for $127.5 million
– In 2017 it sold in Paris for $450 million
As previously stated, these Statuettes were sold to me in 2000 for $14,000. “Salvator Mundi” was sold in 2005 for $10,000. Considering everything I already said in this interview, I firmly believe that there’s an excellent financial potential for my statuettes and $36 million may even be a very modest starting price.
Has anyone expressed interest to buy these statuettes?
Yes. We have several interested parties with whom we are now in negotiation.
One story I can share publicly. In the early spring of 2021, I published a video on my YouTube channel about these Chinese statuettes. Almost immediately we received several offers from brokers who had connections to serious clients. With some of them I began preliminary talks, however soon after I put a pause on that because by late spring, I met a businessman called Mahmood who was from a wealthy Middle Eastern country with many connections in that region.
I gave him several of our books and catalogues, revealing my approach to the art business. Over a couple of months we found a lot of common ground. In response to my offer to locate a serious buyer for my statuettes, on a commission basis of course, Mahmoud disclosed that his former employer was a Saudi prince by the name of Abdulaziz bin Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, with whom he had a good relationship and to whom he could offer these artifacts.
By mid-July 2021, Mahmoud conveyed to me that the Prince had accepted my offer but to move forward there must be a full audit of this transaction by Mahmoud and the Prince. It started with the due diligence of the seller (i.e. myself, as the owner and our Canadian corporation, as the legal entity) which was completed successfully. Then we moved to the authentication of the statuettes. To do so a Chinese art expert, a professor from Hong Kong, was brought by the Prince’s side. He took some time but eventually gave a positive conclusion, verifying that these ancient statuettes were authentic.
The entire audit lasted quite a long time but by the end of October my version of the contract was accepted. In it Mahmoud was listed as one of the beneficiaries. In November we were expecting to begin the final phase of this deal. The proposed protocol by Mahmoud (and the Prince) was as follows: the Prince would make a direct payment to the bank account of our Canadian corporation; a meeting where I would personally deliver and give these statuettes to the Prince would be scheduled shortly after; during this meeting a Transfer of Ownership would be signed, finalizing this transaction. By the end of October all preparations, verifications, and checks were completed and we were good to go … since then we have been waiting for this deal to be completed.
Are you waiting for the prince or have you begun to seek other buyers?
We do have other interested parties, but I believe that the Prince is a man of his word and will purchase these statuettes.
That being said, while it’s our preference to complete this transaction with the Prince, I feel that First Come, First Served approach may soon be more appropriate for me. Should these statuettes be sold to someone else, I have a feeling that the Prince will want to buy them from the new owner, whose price may be much steeper than mine. If in fact, if the price is the issue, I would like to emphasize that I see no counterarguments which would tell me that these two unique Chinese statuettes are inferior in their value to the “Salvator Mundi” painting which was purchased in 2017 by another Saudi Prince for $450 million. To buy or not to buy these statuettes after such a long business dialogue is rather a matter of honor and Royal name for the Prince. I’m fine either way.
Do you trust Mahmood and how do you know that this prince is real?
Mahmood organized direct communication between the Prince and myself by phone and video, and has been doing so for the past 8 months. I believe that both of them are honorable men.
Why do you think this sale hasn’t happened yet?
This prolonged situation with the sale/purchase of these statuettes by the Saudi Prince it is beyond my understanding. I do know that such transactions take time. We are certainly not forcing anyone. In fact, time plays in our favour since the price for my statuettes is only going to increase.
Do you have any safety concerns or fears that something nefarious may be going on with this deal?
I’m not worried that anyone may do something illegal regarding me or my artifacts. We take our security very seriously and in all my 25 years of work in the art market no one has ever been able get myself or my business mixed up in any type of criminal activity. Some tried, all failed. Moreover, being an art world leader in scientific methods and technologies, we give our opponents no chances to even accuse us of anything immoral. I am sure that Mahmood and everyone who has ever done business with us saw this from the very start. I’m very meticulous about transparency, honesty, and clear communication.
According to several publications your art fund in 2019 sold a self-portrait of Benvenuto Cellini for $125M to a Saudi prince. Is this the same buyer?
Those publications are not true. While we were able to locate a wealthy interested buyer from the Middle East who was willing to purchase the self-portrait of Benvenuto Cellini for $125 million, the owner of that artwork abruptly ended all communication with us a few weeks prior and ruined that deal.
There are several highly critical articles about you and your business, some with serious accusations. Would you like to comment on them?
In our modern times all public figures, especially those with strong, independent positions in life and business, get attacked. I’m no exception.
In 2005-2007 I had a major public confrontation with the two Ministers of Culture of the Russian Federation over the famous Solovetsky Iconostasis. They accused me and the owner of everything you can imagine. In the end we exposed their lies, sold the Iconostasis for $5 million, set a World Record, and returned that holy artifact back to Russia. Google it.
The articles you mentioned about me are outright fakes, written by zealous opponents that often hide behind anonymous media-sources. I have no fear of such dirty tricks and welcome anything they can throw at me. In fact, to cheer up your audience, here’s one of such “pearls” about yours truly: https://u4-investigator.livejournal.com/258.html
Prof. Tamoikin, thank you so much for this exclusive interview. Do you have any closing thoughts that you wish to share?
The number of those who wish to possess these Imperial Chinese relics is growing. A new contender to acquire them has already contacted me. I have no doubt that there will be more very soon. I further believe that these statuettes can bring a lot of wealth to any buyer who purchases them from me right now at my current price. In fact, I have no doubt that as soon as they are sold their value will double just from all the media attention that sale will generate. You all saw how quickly “Salvator Mundi” went from $10,000 in 2005 to $450 million by 2017. These statues can do the same or better so the $36 million I’m asking is a bargain.
Mark my words, the next owner will be selling them for over $100 million.
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