The frothy contemporary art scene in Beijing has lost some of its ebullience in the three-and-a-half months since a German art handler and a Chinese associate were detained on charges that they undervalued imported art to avoid customs duties.
Gallery openings are a bit more subdued, anxious art dealers have been keeping a low profile, and several wealthy collectors have been barred from leaving China while the investigation continues. Auction house giants like Sotheby’s and Christie’s have been asked to cooperate with the authorities in what has become a wide-ranging investigation.
“Lots of people here are not going into work, or they are only using junior staff at their offices and galleries,” a Beijing gallery director said on condition of anonymity because of the tension surrounding the issue. “They can’t arrest everybody, but everyone is still nervous.”
In the meantime, Nils Jennrich and Lydia Chu (儲群), employees of the art-handling company Integrated Fine Art Solutions, languish in a Beijing jail on suspicion of smuggling, a crime normally associated with the illegal importation of drugs or arms. The charges carry a maximum of a life sentence.
Jennrich, 31, the company’s general manager and a German citizen, was taken away on the evening of March 30 during a raid of the business’ Beijing offices; hours later Chu, 29, its operations manager, was summoned for questioning. Jennrich’s family and colleagues have expressed concern for his health, saying he has been forced to share a cell with 11 others. During the first days of his detention, they added, he was interrogated for 36 hours straight, a violation of Chinese law.
“It’s a living nightmare,” said Jennrich’s fiancee, Jenny Dam, who said the couple had planned to marry in May.
No trial date has been set.
The detentions have put a spotlight on the mercurial Chinese legal system and raised questions among collectors and industry executives about the potential pitfalls of China’s fast-growing art and antiques market, which last year surpassed the US to become the world’s largest, according to the European Fine Art Foundation. The crackdown, industry professionals have warned, could dissuade Chinese collectors from bringing home art purchased abroad.
Some have privately questioned the government’s motivation, noting that Integrated Fine Art Solutions has handled the work of Ai Weiwei (艾未未), the maverick artist who has earned the government’s wrath for his criticism of the Chinese Communist Party.
Others have suggested that the case is aimed at taking down a foreign-owned company to clear the way for a well-connected domestic player that recently began lavishly investing in the art-handling business.
“China is supposed to be a lot more integrated with the world economy,” said Jonathan Schwartz, chief executive of Atelier 4, an art logistics company based in New York. “The decision to throw someone in jail tells you that China is not really playing by similar rules as the other large nations that are dealing with culture and transit.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has declined to comment on the case.
Speaking from Hong Kong, Integrated Fine Art Solutions chief executive Torsten Hendricks dismissed the allegations — that the accused tried to help buyers avoid US$1.6 million in import duties — saying his company does not get involved in art valuation.