Old Cars, Grand Pianos: China’s New Status Symbols

In China, Private Buyers Up To 65% Of Steinway’s Market

Cadillac's "Dramatic Journey" exhibition in Beijing appealed to China's burgeoning antique car lover

With many of China’s wealthy elite turning away from public displays of wealth and enjoying high-priced toys within the privacy of their own homes, new status symbols like antique cars and grand pianos are joining the ranks of popular stealth buys. Joining other collector segments that have gained popularity in China over the past decade — among them wine, art, cigars and watches — as China Daily notes this week, interest in the Mainland is steadily rising for rare automobiles, following similar trends in Europe, the US, and Hong Kong. Via China Daily:

“In my view, a resurgence in antique car collecting is in the making among Chinese car enthusiasts and the newly rich. Some mainland collectors have become interested in antique cars, influenced by their friends from Europe, the United States and Hong Kong,” said [businessman Ian] Wade.

More importantly, “during a global economic downturn, there is still enough capital among car collectors and rich investors on the Chinese mainland,” he added.

Though collectors like Wade obviously have a vested interest in seeing the popularity of high-end car collecting gaining traction in China, other recent happenings have shown that interest in antique cars isn’t limited only to a handful of niche enthusiasts. Last month, in an effort to promote antique car collecting, China’s State Administration of Culture Heritage held its first-ever seminar on the topic at the Shanghai Auto Museum, bringing together experts and potential buyers.

Over the course of 2012, automakers themselves also promoted heritage models to Chinese gearheads, with Volkswagen holding an antique auto rally from Beijing to Shanghai in October that featured a 1930 8-liter Bentley, a Lamborghini 400 GT, a 1975 2.7-liter Porsche 911, a 1956 Volkswagen Beetle Miglia Mile and a 1972 Beetle Salzburg Kfer shipped from Europe. Last April, Cadillac sent classic models ranging from a Harley Earl-designed LaSalle (1927-1940) to Salvador Dali’s beloved Fleetwood Sixty, a classic Eldorado, and a one-of-a-kind Model M to China to take part in its “Dramatic Journey” exhibition in Beijing.

Efforts to promote classic and antique car collecting in China haven’t been limited to auto brands and cultural departments, however. In 2011, Chinese auction house Beijing Poly sold five antique autos at its spring auctions for the first time ever. As Ian Wade told China Daily, it’s likely we’ll see more Chinese enthusiasts scouring the world for classic motors, but the high price of importing overseas buys and a dearth of trained maintenance professionals means it’ll remain a very expensive hobby for quite some time.

The BMW Individual 7 Series Steinway & Sons edition debuted in China in 2011

In addition to antique cars, high-priced grand pianos are also becoming a must-have status symbol for China’s newly wealthy. As with any segment of China’s luxury market, however, buyers aren’t homing in on just any old brand, a fact that has benefited prominent manufacturers like Steinway & Sons. With the country’s cashed-up consumers spending heavily on music lessons for their “little emperors,” a grand piano has become a household must-have to connote sophistication and cultivation, and with the European market shrinking for top-tier piano producers, the timing is just right for leading brands. Via Worldcrunch:

“In the past few months, demand [in Europe, for grand pianos] has fallen 10 to 12%,” [Werner Husmann, managing director of Steinway & Sons in Europe and Asia] says, adding that the pinch is being felt far more by cheaper brands like Schimmel and Bechstein than it is by Steinway.

In China, private buyers comprise up to 65% of Steinway’s market, but in Europe only 40% of Steinway buyers are amateur musicians. Most European customers are professionals – music teachers, soloists.

“And a lot of people in Europe already have a piano,” Husmann points out, so on the old continent the company is pursuing a strategy of keeping its sales stable.

Another major growth market is the Arab Emirates […] In the Emirates, as it is in China, a Steinway grand piano is more a symbol of an up-market lifestyle than it is something to aspire playing. So here too “we’re competing with other luxury goods for the favor of wealthy customers,” says Husmann.

While grand pianos haven’t quite joined the luxury car, the Rolex or Patek, the antique ink-and-paper painting and logo-festooned handbag among the crucial “first buys” of China’s nouveau riche, wealthy consumers who want to keep their pricey items behind closed doors are certainly shelling out. Last year, China became Steinway’s leading market, demoting long-time top market Europe into second place, and back in June 2011, the piano maker’s BMW Individual 7 Series Steinway & Sons edition got the red-carpet treatment during its China debut.


Art & Design, Market Analysis