Chinese Collectors Have “Growing Appetite For Art”

Sotheby’s Auctions In Hong Kong, Asia Week In New York, 2009 Momentum Bode Well For Auction Houses

Chinese photography by top artists like Hai Bo (Image: Untitled No. 36 (2001)) is growing in popularity among Chinese and Western collectors of Chinese contemporary art

Chinese photography by top artists like Hai Bo (Image: Untitled No. 36 (2001)) is growing in popularity among Chinese and Western collectors of Chinese contemporary art

Last week, Jing Daily covered Sotheby’s Hong Kong spring auction series, which raked in $256 million across several categories, from Chinese modern and contemporary art to fine wine and rare jewelry, well above the pre-sale estimate of $167 million. Following the successful series, Nicolas Chow, Sotheby’s senior director for China and Southeast Asia at Sotheby’s told the Wall Street Journal that the auction market in the Greater China region is like a “one-way elevator upward,” with mainland Chinese collectors regularly going several times above high estimates for important or high-quality pieces.

This week, the Beijing Review looks at the current state of the Chinese art auction market, looking specifically at the rise of new Chinese collectors who base their bidding less on international trends and more on the cultural or historical importance they see in a particular item.

As we’ve seen at major auctions in the last year or so, in which Chinese collectors have gravitated towards historically significant lots from the Qianlong period (1735-1798) while remaining ambivalent toward pieces from less popular times in Chinese history (such as the late Qing), culture and history play a major role in what Chinese collectors want to buy and how much they’re willing to spend to get it.

From the Beijing Review:

Chinese art has long been loved by Western collectors looking for exotic pieces. Since the late 19th century Sotheby’s often conducted special auctions of Chinese art.

Buyers of Chinese art in the United States are collectors from many different professions as well as dealers who “appreciate the whole spectrum of Chinese art” such as Neolithic pottery, archaic bronzes, Song (960-1279) to Qing (1636-1911) dynasties’ porcelain, classical furniture and contemporary art, Loong said.

Chinese contemporary art has also become an area in which Westerners are taking a great interest. The first wave of the craze for Chinese contemporary art started in 2004, said Dr. Iain Robertson, Head of Art Business Studies of Sotheby’s Institute of Art, in an interview with Beijing Review.

“China is going to be a very powerful country and it makes sense to collect the art of a very powerful and potentially rich country,” he said.

His opinion was echoed by Howard-Sneyd, who said Westerners were becoming increasingly interested in China and Chinese people. “They want to know about China and they’re fascinated by the country,” he said and he remembers the time of the burgeoning interest in China.

Howard-Sneyd said Sotheby’s had its first auction on contemporary Asian art in Hong Kong in 2004, when China was “on the front page of every day’s newspapers” and “in front of everybody’s minds.” He said there was strong American bidding for contemporary Chinese works at the auction, and he began to think of a New York sale. It took about a year and half to set up New York’s first sale of contemporary Asian art in 2006.

At Sotheby’s Hong Kong Contemporary Asian Art Spring Sale 2010, the auction house achieved a total of $18.6 million, far exceeding the high estimate $16.3 million. Chinese painter Liu Ye’s highly sought-after early work Bright Road fetched an impressive $2.45 million after a round of intense bidding, achieving a world record for the artist at auction.

The article goes on to note that most Chinese collectors, unlike their Western counterparts, are collecting art more for investment reasons than personal interest. As Jing Daily has written before, much of this has to do with the relatively few investment options in China for wealthier individuals, and their concerns about inflation and future appreciation of the yuan:

Howard-Sneyd expressed a similar opinion. At the moment, inside China, there was a lot more investment involved in the art market, he said. But there were also a number of people who had started off purely as investors and ended up with an appreciation of aesthetics.

“Chinese buyers are willing to pay a lot for the art, as if they don’t care about the price,” Chang said. It is very obvious at auctions where some Chinese buyers just continue raising the bidding.

Chang said Western collectors whom he had known for many years now found it hard to compete with Chinese buyers at auctions who were not hesitating to spend substantial money on what they wanted.

Chinese collectors love auctions, perhaps because they are an easy and open way to acquire art, according to Howard-Sneyd. Chang’s opinion differs. He thinks maybe direct competition at the auctions gives Chinese a greater sense of achievement.


Art & Design, Market Analysis