Interview: Collector Wang Wei – “Our Happiness Lies In Collecting Art”

Wang Discusses “Red Classics,”  Works Of Revolutionary History, Growth Of Chinese New Collectors

王薇

Chinese art collector Wang Wei (王薇)

Chinese arts portal Artron has posted an excellent interview with the Chinese art collector Wang Wei, part of the vanguard of up-and-coming Chinese collectors. In this interview, Wang sheds light on the intense competition between Chinese New Collectors and foreign collectors, the latter of which have dominated the Chinese contemporary art market for the last 30 years and the Chinese antiquities market for even longer.

As one of China’s most influential collectors, Wang has a keen eye for the important developments currently underway in China’s art market. Her perceptive understanding of trends in museum collection, Chinese photography, and the importance of arts education in China offer valuable insight into what motivates New Chinese Collectors, and what the future might hold for this increasingly influential group.

Excerpts of interview translated by Jing Daily team.

My conversation with Wang Wei focused on the themes of the historical revolutionary works in [her recent] exhibition, and also what are commonly referred to as “Red Classics,” one of the three major categories of works collected by Wang Wei. I know Wang Wei’s temperament, dedication, caring nature, and occasional impulsiveness, but what’s rare is this doesn’t seem to overlap into her art collection, in which you could say she demonstrates a kind of spirit as excellent as those of her male counterparts.

Li Feng (hereinafter referred to as Li): You’re one of the biggest collectors right now, but the first oil painting in your collection was purchased to decorate Pudong’s “New House”, sometime around 2003, right??

Wang Wei (hereinafter referred to as Wang): That’s right! It was love at first sight the first time I laid eyes on Xu Beihong’s painting “Ping Zhuo,” which was on the cover of a Guardian brochure. But at that time I still didn’t have any experience with collecting oil paintings, so in the end I didn’t get that painting at auction. But that became one of my biggest regrets as an oil painting collector,  in addition to Wu Zuoren’s “Yellow Flower on a Battlefield” and Chen Yan Ning’s “Chairman Mao Visits the Guangdong Countryside.”

Li: When “Chairman Mao Visits the Guangdong Countryside” was auctioned, you and I were there together. Beforehand, we were chatting, and I remember that two people were sitting behind us: one was Ai Weiwei, and beside him was Uli Sigg — you didn’t know who they were before then. Who knew that soon you’d become their competitor, with Sigg finally buying this piece.

Wang: Yeah, and another friend was there too, and at that time was determined to win. But when the bidding hit 9.4 million RMB, that friend of mine said to Maomao (Wang Wei’s husband Liu Yiqian) said the same thing. At the time I didn’t know what to do, and finally I gave up. After the auction I said, those knowledgeable foreigners made a special trip here to buy these things. Can’t we buy too? China’s most outstanding entrepreneurs can’t compete with foreigners? This is the best “Cultural Revolution” -era painting, if I could buy it, it would be an honor for my collection, but what a pity to miss out on it. Maomao didn’t say a word. Later he said to our friend, Wang Wei was right, we’ve got to look at the big picture.

Li: Let’s go back to your collection o f original oil paintings. I remember you buying Wu Guanzhong’s 1970s work “Ai Wan Ting,” Zhang Hong Xiang’s “Difficult Years” and other things. Needless to say, Wu Guanzhong is famous and influential, but what made you want to buy “Difficult Years”? This was the first Cultural Revolution-themed work you ever bought.

Wang: Well, this painting is used in primary school textbooks, which is the primary reason. After the auction, there was an old American woman who found me through a friend, she offered me 200,000 RMB over what I paid to buy it from me. I thought, why’s she willing to add all this money to buy it from me? You can buy it and I can buy it! Later I found out that this kind of painting is typically kept in a museum, which strengthened my confidence as a collector.

I’ve loved painting since I was a kid, and in art class the worst grade I ever got was still “excellent,” I never received just “OK,” and I guess my love of art must derive from that period in my life. When I first started collecting historical pieces from the Cultural Revolution, I really had no concept of the world of art collection, I just kept an eye on the auction market, and nearly every one has a few good things that helped me build up my collection over time. Last year I started to sort it all out, and boom, it’s like I’ve already got more than 100 things!

Later in the interview, Wang discusses the dearth of Chinese collectors, and how collecting Chinese art is a kind of “self-containing” exercise, which will benefit the country’s arts education later on.

Wang: …I don’t deal with the outside world that much, but I do pay attention to magazines that say China has no collectors. I think China definitely has collectors, but a lot of them aren’t that public about it. I think this exhibition is going to set a new trend, though, and get the ball rolling. I believe that afterwards, people will slowly be willing to collect, and the scene will gradually get better and better.

When we started planning this exhibition last year, someone said, if Wang Wei’s organizing this exhibition, afterwards she’s going to be ready to sell it. When I heard that I laughed my ass off! But I guess that person had seen lots of foreigners snapping up Chinese contemporary art and selling it for big profits later and taking off, so he was just assuming the same from me. But they’re wrong about me; I won’t sell even one of my “Red Classics.” I used to always say that, and I still say it. Over time the facts speak for themselves. Regarding art collection I have my own dreams, and I think I’ll finally achieve them.

Wang and Li go on to discuss in greater detail the “Red Classics” Wang referred to earlier, classic works from the Maoist period. 

Li: …There are lots of followers of “Red Classics” overseas [as well as in China], including Uli Sigg, who we mentioned earlier. The Mainland is the trading center of Cultural Revolution paintings, directly attributable to the fact that the vast majority of these works are here; Foreign collectors and brokers don’t have them. And without works you have no bargaining chip. This is an aspect of the market that people won’t bother to promote, even if there are potential buyers for these works overseas.

Wang: There’s another reason, too. “Red Classics” are totally rooted in China. Think back to when they were made, the people at that time were going through all kinds of pain and sorrow, ups and downs, these times are deeply imprinted within our bones. This kind of thing isn’t something that market interest can create.

Wang and Li go on to discuss art collection among newly minted entrepreneurs in China, and the Chinese art market in the aftermath of the global financial crisis:

Li: Your collection has set lots of records, like “Rare Sketch Map” (60.61 million RMB), “Ruiying Map” (58.24 million RMB) and so forth, some of which were bought this year. In times of financial crisis, people typically sell their works; Not only in the Mainland but also in Hong Kong and Taiwan the media has paid a lot of attention to you. You’re really confident in your buying, but how do you consider the risks involved?

Wang: Actually, we started collecting calligraphy way before we moved on to oil paintings. Whether it’s calligraphy or oil paintings, we always try to choose the best pieces. In terms of investment and/or business aspects, [my husband and I] always consider our experience, and perhaps this extends in some respects to the way we collect art. When Maomao buys stocks, he doesn’t just listen to the advice of stock analysts. He always says, “you buy stocks when they’re cheap, but artwork isn’t the same — you want to buy artwork when it’s expensive. Of course, this isn’t always the case, there are plenty of great works that aren’t expensive, and the point of buying expensive works is buying the right works, the best works. As they say, “In good times, collect, and in troubled times buy gold,” but actually in terms of the top works of art, they’re never going to be cheap regardless of what’s going on in the world.

Later, Wang and Li turn to contemporary art, and opportunities to collect younger Chinese artists who will appreciate over time as the Chinese collector market continues to mature:

Wang: Entering the market “sooner” or “later” shouldn’t matter; Regardless of when you enter the market there will be opportunities, especially right now. Like how you just said to me that collecting contemporary, collecting the new generation of young artists’ work, like Fang Lijun, Liu Xiaodong. Those artists have shot up in the market really quickly, along with their prices, and as the works flowed out, it’s impossible to collect them all, but young artists are really a great opportunity [for collectors]! Their pieces are native, and really reflect new possibilities — they look so futuristic. For 20 million RMB you can buy a great future, one timely artist’s future…I believe that Chinese collectors have the responsibility to use their own vision to support the new generation of great artists.

Li: The great collectors are typically those who recognize great young artists early on, like those Russian collectors of Cezanne and others. In general, artists enter their most prolific and creative period when they’re around 30 years of age, that’s when the quality of their work hits its peak.

Wang: Yeah! I really agree that age isn’t the most important thing for artists, creativity’s the most important! Additionally, the market is the authority, young artists’ prices typically aren’t that high, so in terms of investment they’re a suitable choice. No one can jump from 100,000 RMB to 1 million RMB — I mean, there are occasional examples of this, but it’s important to avoid dwelling on these rare examples.

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Art & Auction, Culture