Li Guochang: China's New Collectors Should Build Stronger Arts Culture

    With many new collectors getting involved in the market, some Chinese art aficionados warn that tastes and education need to catch up with demand and enthusiasm in order to foster the development of a healthy collector class.
    Jing DailyAuthor
      Published   in Finance

    Collectors Should Focus On "Rich Content And A Real Sense Of Purpose, Rather Than Speculation And Hype"#

    Li Guochang

    Recently, the Financial Times spoke with Steven P. Murphy, chief executive of Christie’s International, who remarked on the growing clout of China's new collectors. Said Murphy, older Chinese buyers are showing a proclivity for traditional and contemporary Chinese art, while the evolving tastes of China's younger generation of buyers are are making them an increasingly sophisticated collector class. It's not surprising that Murphy, as head of Christie's International -- which has a strong foothold in Hong Kong -- is so bullish. As Jing Daily has regularly pointed out, over the past few years mainland Chinese collectors have established themselves among the most active buyers of watches, wine, jewelry, contemporary Chinese art and antiques in the world, most notably at auctions in Hong Kong.

    This collecting boom, which has only gained strength as more wealthy Chinese have sought to sidestep rising inflation and stock market or real estate volatility by investing in art, wine and other "portable assets", has been particularly good for international auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's, which now see Hong Kong as one of their key markets, nearly on par with traditional hubs London and New York.

    Chinese collectors played an instrumental role in helping Christie's spring auctions in Hong Kong pull in a record-breaking HK$3.65 billion (US$470 million), well over the pre-auction estimate of HK$2.4 billion. Sotheby's too found this new force indispensable at its Hong Kong spring auction series, which reached a grand total of HK$3.49 billion ($448 million) this April. Naturally, with Chinese buyers becoming so dominant in certain auction segments, particularly porcelain, Chinese contemporary art, antiques and wine, the auction world is eager to pin down this new collector class, an exercise that has proven difficult because it is so diverse. As Qian Weipeng, a Shanghai-based dealer, hinted late last month, collecting art is now seen in China as a "must", either for investment purposes or personal enjoyment. Said Qian, “A lot of coal miners and listed company owners and financiers have built wealth and are comfortable spending it on art”.

    "The Leopard" by Zeng Fanzhi was recently sold for HK$36 million to Chinese entrepreneur Zhao Zhijun

    The fact that more Chinese "coal miners" and "financiers" are showing up more often at auctions has raised some eyebrows, mostly among those who fear excessive speculation could push the Hong Kong auction market to bubble territory. However, a recent ArtTactic study found that possibility to be remote, noting that short-term speculation could only threaten smaller domestic Chinese auction houses contained within mainland China, and is unlikely to affect the more international Hong Kong market. Still, with so many new collectors getting involved in the market, some of China's more prominent art aficionados caution that tastes and education need to catch up with demand and enthusiasm in order to foster the development of a healthy and sophisticated collector class. Last week, Li Guochang, chairman of China Forestry Holdings and noted Chinese art collector, said that the country's collector class now needs a "sense of responsibility" and must focus on content, rather than short-term gain.

    From Art Finance (translation by Jing Daily team):

    Li Guochang (李国昌) currently has a collection of around 1,000 items, a museum, an art investment fund and arts media company. The degree in which he's invested in contemporary art is formidable. Li Guochang feels an art collector should possess a wealth of content, have an aim for his or her collection, and shouldn't be swayed by speculation or hype, maintaining a sense of responsibility towards cultural legacy.

    Art Finance (AF): What's your current criteria for collecting?

    Li Guochang (L)

    : Right now I'm exclusively collecting classic representative works of Chinese contemporary art. I look for those that embody academic value, spirit, and originality. Those that are disconnected from market elements and are truly independent.

    AF: Will the recent sale of the Ullens Collection have an obvious effect on the Chinese contemporary art market? Will it lead to a chain reaction in which other international Chinese contemporary art collectors sell their collections?


    I don't think the Ullens sale will have much of an effect on current trends in the Chinese contemporary art market. If we are to discuss market fluctuations, small-scale fluctuations will occur, but there won't be a major effect [from the auction]. Chinese contemporary art has always had a localized foundation, and been evaluated on academic criteria. As such, small-scale fluctuations alone won't have much of an effect on value.

    AF: The sale of the Ullens collection seemed to mark a return of Chinese contemporary art [to Chinese collectors]. Does this indicate that demand for Chinese contemporary art among non-Chinese collectors is weakening?


    : I think the "return" of these works [to Chinese collectors] will do far more good than harm, and will help the development of native collectors of Chinese contemporary art. As the global position of China rose in the wake of the global economic crisis, and more Chinese have gotten involved in the arts, I think Chinese contemporary art is on the right track. This won't be affected by the [buying or selling] activities of a few collectors.

    AF: How do you define a "real" Chinese collector?


    : One driven by a search for rich content and a true collecting aim, rather than a focus on art market speculation and hype. A person with a sense of responsibility, and an interest in promoting the development of Chinese culture. These are the elements that should inform a collector's thinking and actions.
    Discover more
    Daily BriefAnalysis, news, and insights delivered to your inbox.