Curiosity About Western Art Offset By Continued Strong Buying Of Chinese Art & Antiques
With China recently surpassing the US as the world’s largest art and antiques market in terms of auction and dealer sales, and the country’s new collectors criss-crossing the globe on the hunt for top-quality lots, the chorus of art market observers asking when China’s new collectors will turn their eyes to Western artists is becoming louder by the month. As the Economist wrote on the subject last fall:
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.
Observers at the European Fine Art Fair, which wrapped this past weekend in Maastricht, also had an eye out for China’s emerging buyer, with the FT noting that the fair’s organizers have recently begun “assiduously courting Chinese collectors.” With a brand new Chinese-language website for the event and a greater emphasis on attracting Chinese buyers, this year’s fair welcomed around 100 Chinese participants, though the article admits that this includes not only mainland Chinese collectors but also ethnic Chinese from places like Hong Kong and Taiwan. But did the organizers’ efforts to bring in the sought-after, cashed-up Chinese buyer pay off? The FT weighs in:
As the fair opened, Floris van der Ven – who specialises in Asian art – sold three pieces, including a Shang bronze for €250,000, to Chinese collectors: one mainlander, one Taiwanese and one from Hong Kong. But those galleries specialise in Asian art, so they already have a converted audience. The big question was whether Chinese buyers would take an interest in the western art on show. Dealers were not convinced they would be ready to buy Old Masters, for instance. But Wijermars Fine Art did sell an edition of the famed Barrias sculpture, “La Nature se dévoilant devant la Science” (1899), to a Chinese collector.
“The Chinese were quite overwhelmed by the size and quality of the fair,” says the fair chairman Ben Janssens. “It’s a learning curve for them, and for us: we need to have more guides who speak Chinese and more labels in their language. But it was a very positive experience.”
Though it’s impressive to see potential Chinese buyers showing up at this sort of event, it bears noting that while Chinese collectors have shown an interest in learning about and exposing themselves to Western art, their buying has remained by and large focused primarily on art and antiques of all categories from China. Much of this has to do with the greater prestige of Chinese art among these buyers’ peers, their deeper understanding of Chinese art and culture, and the relative ease of buying high-quality historical pieces at overseas auctions and those in Hong Kong. Having only entered the art market in the last decade, or more realistically in the last five years, Chinese collectors are still playing catch-up, working to build up their core collections of top Chinese art and antiques.
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.
As author and art critic Barbara Pollack recently told the AFP, “Chinese collectors are basically looking at Chinese art,” a reality that saw three Chinese artists ranked among the world’s top five auction sellers in 2011, and Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) edge out Picasso and Warhol to become the top earner with auction sales of over US$506 million. And as Chinese collectors join the market in ever-increasing numbers, top Chinese artists have shown up among global auction rankings year after year. 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. As Pollack added, “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.”
For Chinese collectors, buying at auction is dictated not only by a desire to diversify their assets away from cash or the stock market, but also a complex mix of motivations that include an interest in appearing cultured among their peers and, in some ways, nationalism. This is particularly true for buyers who travel to London, New York or Paris to bid on lots that were smuggled out of or bought from China in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, a factor that has pushed auction prices for objects from the reign of popular emperors like Qianlong to stratospheric levels in the last three years.
It is this combination of motivational factors that we expect to see on full display next week at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, where Chinese bidders will likely home in on top-quality works by blue-chip contemporary Chinese artists like Zeng Fanzhi, Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang as well as fine Chinese paintings by the likes of Fu Baoshi and Zhang Daqian, rare jade and jewelry, and fine wines.