Forbes: Asia’s Auction Rebound

Successful Auctions By Sotheby’s, Christie’s, China Guardian And Poly Give Chinese Modern & Contemporary Art A Major Boost

Sold this weekend in Hong Kong for HK$1.2 million above high estimate: Chinese contemporary artist Liu Ye's "I Always Wanted to be a Sailor"

Sold this weekend in Hong Kong for HK$1.2 million above high estimate: Chinese contemporary artist Liu Ye's "I Always Wanted to be a Sailor"

Over the last few months, the global auction market — hit hard by the global economic crisis — has gotten a lift from a once-unlikely group of buyers: Asian collectors, led in particular by New Chinese Collectors, who have quickly developed a reputation for aggressive but sophisticated buying of everything from antiquities to contemporary art. As a Forbes piece by Hana Alberts notes today, these Asian buyers have been instrumental in the success of recent auctions in places like Hong Kong, where at a Christie’s auction this weekend Asian, mainly mainland Chinese, collectors purchased 80% of lots up for grabs, for a grand total of US$33.8 million (HK$261.9 million).

At the heart of the success of recent auctions is the growing buying power of wealthy Asian consumers, who are looking more to discretionary purchases after already having stocked up on luxury cars, outfitting their apartments, and sprung for foreign vacations. As the Forbes article notes:

“[In Asia, p]eople are, in fact, still buying the big-ticket items,” says Ashok Soman, managing editor of Luxury Insider, a news portal about top-of-the-line goods in Asia. “When you have something like the pink diamond, they [Christie’s] are obviously making a statement: ‘This will sell.'”

Other highlights from the week-long series of auctions beginning Nov. 28, which Christie’s puts on semiannually at Hong Kong’s massive convention center, include a brightly colored still life from Chinese contemporary artist Sanyu (1901-1966). In May, Christie’s sold a Sanyu work for record-setting $5.4 million. This estimated value of this still life is $1.5 million; demand for the artist’s work has only grown.

“The buying behavior of the Chinese has been very aggressive and very supportive of the art market,” [Andrew Foster, president of Christie’s in Asia] says. “I think there’s straightforward optimism about where this market is going.”

Zeng Fanzhi's "Untitled (Hospital)" sold for nearly HK$7 million above its high estimate to a private Asian bidder

Zeng Fanzhi's "Untitled (Hospital)", purchased by Charles Saatchi for US$1.41 million in June 2007, sold this weekend for US$2.47 million in Hong Kong

This Mainland Chinese buying power was on full display this weekend at the aforementioned Christie’s auction in Hong Kong, where New Collector enthusiasm spread from modern to contemporary Chinese art. Private Asian (primarily Chinese) buyers snapped up modernist works like Chu Teh-Chun’s Vestige Neigeux for US$5.86 million (setting a new record for this artist), Zao Wou-Ki’s 19-11-59 for US$3.9 million and contemporary Chinese works like Untitled (Hospital Series) by Zeng Fanzhi, which went for US$2.5 million (well over its high estimate of US$1.54 million and Liu Ye’s I Always Wanted To Be a Sailor which sold to a private collector for US$807,540 (above and beyond its high estimate of US$645,167). As the Forbes article concludes, this motivation reflects the shift in enthusiastic buying from West to East that we’ve been seeing develop over the past couple of years:

Longtime art collector Larry Warsh calls the massive surge in Chinese demand for high-end collectible goods a “once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.”

“Asset allocation, diversification, wealth management–these are all new things that the Chinese audience is learning. Art is just a part of this mix,” Warsh says. “Diamonds, collectibles and art are now hedges against inflation and against the depreciation of the dollar.”

If results from rival Sotheby‘s are any indication, Christie’s has ample reason to be optimistic. In terms of total money brought in, its autumn sales in Hong Kong fared 88% better than the spring round.

“If you’re selling any asset today, you have to think of Asia,” Warsh says. “That’s where the action is, that’s where the power is, that’s where the wealth is.”


Art & Design, Market Analysis