“Chinese Collectors Are Basically Looking At Chinese Art”

Five Chinese Artists Currently Sit Among World’s Top 10

Zeng Fanzhi's "Mask Series 1998 No.26" sold for US$2.6 million at the recent Ullens auction in Hong Kong

Zeng Fanzhi’s “Mask Series 1998 No.26” sold for US$2.6 million at the recent Ullens auction in Hong Kong

With China surpassing Britain to become the world’s second-largest art market by combined auction and gallery sales (which totalled US$8.3 billion last year) and overtaking the US to become the world’s top market by auctions alone, art market observers and auction houses have begun to ask if or when China’s new collectors will turn their eyes to Western artists. As the Economist wrote last week:

Chinese buyers have snapped up a handful of high-profile Western works this year. The prosperous Picasso fan who paid $21.4m for “Femmes lisant” at Sotheby’s in May is said to be Chinese. In July a buyer from greater China bought a Michelangelo black-chalk drawing at Christie’s for £3.2m ($5m). “They will move into international areas,” predicts Jonathan Stone, the chairman of Asian Art at Christie’s in Hong Kong. Nick Simunovic of Gagosian Gallery in Hong Kong says the gap between Eastern and Western tastes is narrowing.

While some are placing bets that Chinese collectors will follow in the footsteps of Japanese buyers, who spent much of the 1980s scouring the globe for Warhols, Picassos and even Renoirs, not everyone is convinced. As Sotheby’s Asia chairman Patti Wong recently pointed out, Chinese collectors, like all new collectors, remain fixated upon Chinese artists as “all cultures start with their own art.” On the strength of growing demand, new Chinese collectors and even more established “super-collectors” have, in the space of only three years, turned the Chinese contemporary art market on its head, pushing out many of the formerly dominant Western collectors who originally cultivated the segment a decade ago. This surging demand has fueled a “second boom” in the Chinese art world, pushing prices for blue-chip artists to new highs in the years following the dip seen after the global economic crisis.

Currently, as author and art critic Barbara Pollack told the AFP, “Chinese collectors are basically looking at Chinese art,” a reality that pushed five Chinese artists to the list of the world’s top 10 last year, as measured by combined sales at auction. (In all, 45 Chinese artists sit on the list of the world’s 100 top sellers, according to Artprice.) While some names, like blue-chip contemporary artists like Zeng Fanzhi, Cai Guo-qiang and Zhang Xiaogang are known (and collected) internationally, many of these top sellers are all but unknown among Western collectors, which reflects the fact that Chinese collectors are no longer looking to the West to dictate auction trends. Said Pollack, “There are names which are totally fuelled by the Chinese market, some of them traditional ink painters, who are almost unheard of in the West.”

Yue Minjun - "Untitled" (2005). Chinese collectors tend to home in on blue-chip artists at auction

Yue Minjun – “Untitled” (2005). Chinese collectors tend to home in on blue-chip artists at auction

With Chinese artists achieving higher visibility (and sales figures) back home, now we’re starting to see them invited to show at Western art fairs, if only in earnest. As the AFP notes, despite growing participation from Asia, Africa and Latin America, these art fairs typically remain heavily weighted towards Europe and North America. This Euro-centric mindset, which often comes through in articles that contend China’s booming art market is fueled mostly by unsophisticated collectors buying the “wrong” artwork at the “wrong” prices, is dismissed by Pollack, who holds, “the idea that we are going to teach [Chinese collectors] taste is very narrow minded.” As gallerist Pearl Lam recently told Jing Daily, “taste” among new Chinese collectors is highly fluid, as buying trends are often dictated by the same factors that are pushing the sales of luxury goods in China. Said Lam:

If you want to see why artists like Zeng Fanzhi and Zhang Xiaogang attract such high prices, you just have to look at Chinese consumer behavior: they love labels. It’s sort of a lack of confidence. They love Louis Vuitton, they love Christian Dior, and for them to buy a “label” artist is also part of their fear of taking a risk. They don’t want to make a mistake. Internationally it’s the same phenomenon – you don’t want to make a mistake.

Beyond following the buying trends of their peers for fear of “not making a mistake,” part of the reason new Chinese collectors tend to home in on blue-chip artists (when they can afford them) or pieces from popular historical eras (such as the reign of emperor Qianlong) is that they’re not just buying art for the sake of enriching themselves culturally; They’re buying for investment value. With inflation and yuan appreciation putting pressure on cash assets, and risk increasing for “non-portable” investments like real estate and stocks, art is seen by many Chinese collectors as a comparatively safe hedge.

What all this adds up to is that generalities about the Chinese art market, and Chinese collectors, rarely hold true. As Barbara Pollack pointed out last week, the increasing clout of Chinese collectors at auctions in mainland China, Hong Kong, or even in New York means traditional conceptions of the market should be thrown out. “Many people in the West still think of the Chinese art market as a regional phenomenon,” Pollack said.

“But the size of it is beginning to prove it can no longer be ignored. This market is only going to grow.”

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Art & Auction, Culture