China’s New Collectors Look To Global Auction Houses For Market Guidance

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“The Premier Blue”, the world’s largest round blue diamond, which will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong on October 7. (Sotheby’s)

As the number of Chinese collectors in the global auction market expands every season, both new and established buyers hope to acquire a greater base of cultural background knowledge of the pieces for sale—and the world’s top auction houses are offering a number of new courses to meet the demand.

This September, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, the company’s global education arm, held its first ever classes in mainland China from September 3 to 6 with a four-day intensive program in Hangzhou covering contemporary Chinese art. The course, which is held in conjunction with the prestigious China Academy of Art, provides Chinese translations of all English content and features a series of intensive sessions on four main mediums in Chinese art history, as well a historical overview of the topic.

This course is one of several new China education programs recently introduced by auction houses, which are a valuable source of information and guidance for China’s budding new collectors. When it comes to Chinese contemporary art, both prices and the number of new collectors are on the rise, but works remain scarce. As a result, new collectors in particular hope to reach a level of connoisseurship which will help them determine which works to purchase.

According to Katie Hill, the instructor for the Hangzhou program, the course is designed “to give a sense of the background and historical context of contemporary Chinese art.” With separate days devoted to ink painting, printmaking, oil painting, and new media, it is “not entirely introductory, but it’s aiming to be accessible, but also give some historical background,” she said. Although the education program is entirely separate from the auction business, Hill noted that it would be useful to potential auction-goers. “You need a certain amount of knowledge to understand what you might want to collect,” she said.

Zeng Fanzhi's The Last Supper (2001) will be on sale for Sotheby's Hong Kong 40th anniversary evening sale on October 5.

Zeng Fanzhi’s The Last Supper (2001) will be on sale for Sotheby’s Hong Kong 40th anniversary evening sale on October 5, and is expected to reach record numbers.

As China’s new buyers wade into the market, the collector base will become more varied in age and income, as well as develop distinctive tastes as they acquire more information. As a result, the pieces available are expected to become more diverse. In regards to art, it’s not just the super-wealthy, but also more mid-tier collectors who are gaining a growing interest in collecting, said Hill, and older collectors are prone to prefer more traditional work as opposed to their younger counterparts, who are more interested in new media. “The implications of that will be that the market, which is already quite complex, will continue to be complex in different ways,” she said.

In addition to the Hangzhou program, Sotheby’s is also offering a Hong Kong course in October on Western jewels from 1780 to 1980, after previously introducing its education program to Greater China in April 2012. Meanwhile, in December 2012, global auction house Christie’s announced its first mainland education program on collecting and investment in the global art market. These programs come at a time when China’s number of collectors is growing rapidly.  “I think there’s a definite growth, in the expansion of the Chinese market. There’s no question about it,” said Hill of the art market.

The jewels course takes place just prior to Sotheby’s “Magnificent Jewels and Jadeite” auction on October 7. Course instructor Daniela Mascetti, who is Sotheby’s international jewelry specialist, said that Chinese enthusiasts are becoming more interested in gaining a background in Western jewelry. “I believe that the Chinese market is very, very recipient of all sorts of information about jewelry,” but Western jewelry “is a relatively new subject for China, basically because jewelry as we consider it in the West has no relation to Chinese history.” According to her, Chinese collectors are currently focused on finding gemstones with the most perfect cut and symmetry, which is why Hong Kong auctions tend to feature pieces such as the world’s largest round blue diamond, which will be auctioned in October and is available for viewing by those who take the course.

“I hope with these courses to be able to show, that it is not only the perfect diamond, but also the perfect design,” that is important when considering a piece, she said. She stated that craftsmanship is certainly a consideration for many Chinese clients, but those focused on more than just the gemstone currently tend to travel abroad to purchase pieces in Europe and elsewhere. However, more craftsmanship-oriented pieces may end up in Hong Kong, because, according to Mascetti, “since China is opening up to jewelry, the market will eventually start to appreciate history as well as gemology.”

The growing practice of educating Chinese consumers in becoming discerning luxury consumers is not just exclusive to auction companies. As China’s wealthy become more discerning in many of their purchase choices, many companies are rushing to meet the demand for a deeper knowledge of their purchases. Wine and spirits retailers are especially interested in engaging with customers in this way—Shanghai wine retailer Sarment is also offering wine pairing classes, while Pernod Ricard has organized trips to France and Scotland and tastings for Chinese clients.

One of the main aspects that courses in jewels, wine, or art have in common is the fact that they are all provide Chinese attendees with access to highly specialized, expert knowledge. “You can’t just pick it up from the internet,” said Hill.

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Art & Auction