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4,500 year old piece
in the Palace Museum
The three best collections of Chinese art are in Taipei, Beijing and Shanghai, with the best of the best at the Palace Museum in Taipei. Museum curators in Taiwan and China are reluctant to lend out their pre-Ming dynasty paintings and calligraphy to other museums because of the extreme fragility of ancient silk, paper and brocade. The most renowned dealer of Chinese art is London- and New York-based Giuseppe Eskenazi.

Most of the imperial collection of art has been lost to war, chaos, invasions and dynasty changes yet much of it has survived. When French and British soldiers looted and burned down the Summer Palace outside Beijing in 1860 almost all of the art works were taken.

Many prized pieces of Chinese art in museums and galleries around the world were obtained during the period of chaos and war after the collapse of the last Chinese dynasty. After the last emperor Pu Yi abdicated in 1911 he and his large retinue supported themselves for another decade and a half in the Forbidden City by selling works of art. In 1925, a warlord offered to sell the American multi-millionaire J.P. Morgan the entire imperial collection of art for $20 million. Morgan turned him down.

On the art tastes of ordinary Chinese one Chinese artist told The New Yorker, “Chinese like this kind of picture. Ugly! And they like this one---of palm trees on a beach. “It’s stupid, something a child would like. Chinese people have no taste...We’ll do a painting and the European customer won’t buy it, and we’ll show it to a Chinese person, and he’ll say, “Great.”

Copy Artists and Collectors: Copy Art article ; Chinese art collectors article . China’s leading auction house, Beijing International Auction, won some recognition with its repatriation of the looted bronze animal heads. Links in this Website: EARLY CHINESE ART ; CHINESE ART FROM THE GREAT DYNASTIES ; CHINESE PAINTING ; CHINESE CRAFTS ; MODERN ART IN CHINA ; MODERN CHINESE ARTISTS ;

Sales of Chinese Art

Multiple-estimate auction prices for stand-out Imperial pieces -- as well as the sheer volume of other smaller transactions -- have helped turn the trade in Chinese antiques into a worldwide business with an annual value of more than $10 billion. Asian and Chinese art is becoming increasingly fashionable among collectors. Christie’s recorded $364 million in sales in Hong Kong in 2006, a fivefold increase from 2001.

Determining the authenticity, date and value of Chinese antiques remains a challenge for auctioneers. In February, Duke’s auction house announced the discovery of a Yongle period (1403-1424) blue and white “moonflask” vase that it estimated was worth as much as much as 1 million pounds at its May sale. Even though authorities were split as to whether this is an early Ming vase or later a telephone bidder bought it for 119,500 pounds. [Source: Scott Reyburn Bloomberg News May 21, 2011]

According to AFP: “The demand for Chinese antiquities has exploded, helping propel Hong Kong to third spot in the global auction market behind London and New York as collectors slap down eye-popping sums for a piece of the country's history. Helping drive the boom is a growing class of super-rich Chinese looking for opportunities to exploit their net worth while also "reclaiming" parts of Chinese history from Western collectors.Auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's together raised over $460 million from sales of Chinese antiquities and art works in 2011. [Source: AFP, February 2012]

Forces Behind the Surge of Buying Asian Art

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The main driver behind the new arrivals in the market is simple: hundreds of thousands of Chinese people now have serious money to spend. According to the Hurun Rich List, the Chinese equivalent of the Forbes or Sunday Times rich lists, there are now 875,000 Chinese people worth over a million US dollars. And almost 200 of these are billionaires. But the real number is likely far higher.[Source: AFP, January 28, 2011]

“China probably now has the largest number of billionaires anywhere in the world,” Rupert Hoogewerf, founder and compiler of the list, told AFP. “We already know of 189 US dollar billionaires in China this year, but you can safely say that we have missed at least the same again, meaning there are between 400 and 500 US dollar billionaires today.”The average wealth on the list is $577 million, more than enough cash to dip a toe in the art market.

Chan Fo-kwong is one of the few to actually show his collection to the public---in his own museum in Hong Kong. The businessman bought much of his $128 million collection in auction houses in the US and Britain. He says patriotism is a force behind the sales. “These antiques originally belonged to China and it would be regretful to leave them overseas,” he told AFP, as he proudly showed off a sample of his works at a shopping mall in the city. “And that’s why I want to bring as many pieces as I can back to their home soil.”

Auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christies are trying to figure out their tastes. One Sotheby executive told the Times of London,” A major part of our global strategy is to focus on how we deal with market in China.” A Christie’s executive said China collectors “are coming to the market with a new sensibility and a slightly different taste but with really deep pockets. The China have already changed the market.” [Source: Times of London]

Chinese Art Collectors

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Christie's Hong Kong office
“We have seen exponential growth by mainland Chinese buyers who were brought up during the Cultural Revolution,” Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby’s vice chairman for Asian art, told New York Times. “These are successful business people with huge amounts of money at their disposal.” [Source: Scott Reyburn Bloomberg News May 21, 2011]

“The number of new millionaires in Asia is shooting up,” Charles Dupplin, a partner at the London-based insurer Hiscox Plc, told Bloomberg, ‘so too is the number of them who want to buy art. I can’t see anything that will hold this back. The client base that buys Old Masters is pretty constant and there is a problem with supply.” [Source: Scott Reyburn Bloomberg News May 21, 2011]

The current Chinese influx is fueled by the sort of new wealth that has made the country home to the world’s largest number of billionaires, according to the Hurun Rich List 2010, China’s version of the Forbes 400. The number of Chinese billionaires is expected to increase 20 percent each year through 2014, according to Artprice.

Christie’s Asia president Francois Curiel says Chinese collectors who want to repatriate works of art are now a huge factor in the global market. The firm sold $882.9 million in Asian art globally. Curiel predicts that the market for Chinese artworks will be the same as that for European and North American works by 2015. “I believe that we are just seeing the beginning here of the development of the art market,” he says. “There are more and more rich people. Art has become a new way of putting money away.” [Source: AFP, January 28, 2011]

In June 2010, a Chinese buyer paid $66 million for an 11th century calligarphy scroll. But it is not just Chinese works that are commanding high prices thanks to the last raised hand at an auction belonging to an Asian buyer. An anonymous telephone bidder, believed to be Chinese, paid a world record $106.5 million for Pablo Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” at a Christie’s sale in New York in May. It was expected to sell for $80 million.

“Mainland Chinese are our main buyers, not only in Hong Kong where they are about 80 percent of our buyers, but also in New York, in London, in Geneva, in Paris,” said Curiel “They are absolutely everywhere now when there is a piece of fine Asian contemporary art, Chinese works of art, Chinese calligraphy and even Western art.”

Wealthy Chinese are also buying Chinese antiquities in record numbers, driving up prices to record levels. In 2007, a Chinese collector named Cai Mingchao paid $15 million for an early Ming, gilt-bronze Buddha, the highest price ever paid for a Chinese artwork. Cai told the Times of London he felt he got a bargain, “In the last century too many antiques left the country but now more are becoming available on international markets.” Christie’s reported that the four main buyers of Chinese art in Hong Kong were mainland Chinese. One of the biggest buyers, Xu Qiang, made a fortune from selling eels, and reportedly spends $4 million a year on porcelain, bronze and furniture.

Motivation, Taste and Sophistication of Chinese Art Collectors

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More and more wealthy people are turning to buying artwork as they think about how to spend their money, according to art market expert Zhao Li. “Ancient Chinese works are their favorite because of their scarcity, plus, the value would be steady compared with contemporary ones.”

Robin Pogrebin wrote in the New York Times, “To some extent, auction experts say, the Chinese regard art not only as a sound way to diversify their portfolios but also as a tested means to project status as they interact with international business executives “the Arnaults and the Pinaults of the world,” said François Curiel, the president of Christie’s Asia, referring to the French billionaires Bernard Arnault and François Pinault. “They see works of art on their walls,” Mr. Curiel said, “and think, “If I want to be not just a millionaire but someone who plays with the big boys, I’d better be someone who collects art.” [Source: Robin Pogrebin, New York Times September 6, 2011]

Hong Kong art dealer Anthony Lin, who regularly bids at auctions on behalf of wealthy clients, says buyers from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are usually collecting as an investment. “Patriotism is one popularly stated reason,” he told AFP. “But investment is probably the more pronounced objective. “There are limited opportunities in the PRC---the stock market and property sector are volatile areas. There are no commodity markets, futures or currency markets or the various funds readily available outside the PRC.”

The surge in Chinese collecting is not just a reflection of new wealth, experts say, but also a reaction to the repressive Mao years when the country was denied culture. For the Chinese, who watched art disparaged as a frivolous exercise except when put to didactic use, the freedom to explore simple aesthetic pleasures, to repossess historical works and to show off recent affluence has been liberating. “They have an interest in reclaiming their culture and their history,” Mr. Howard-Sneyd said.

The tide of buying is in some ways an effort to make up for lost time. “In China, for 50 or 60 years, nothing happened,” said Vishakha N. Desai, the president of Asia Society. “That’s a big break. The last 250 years were years of humiliation. They now feel an obligation to prize art again and bring it back.”

Robin Pogrebin wrote in the New York Times, “Because of that history, Chinese art buying “particularly the public display associated with an auction “is still a nascent phenomenon. Chinese collectors are only beginning to develop an artistic eye and expertise. “They don’t necessarily have the cultural or education background “they don’t have the context,” said Jehan Chu, an art consultant whose Hong Kong-based company, Vermillion Art Collections, helps buyers build their holdings. “There were no museums, no galleries until recently and not so much access to information.” [Source: Robin Pogrebin, New York Times September 6, 2011]

Some rich Chinese art collectors and members of the Communist party have been able to buy valuable art works from Western sources that were taken from China by foreigners. These collectors feel a great sense of pride restoring art work, regarded as stolen, to their homeland. In a widely publicized buy, the Poly Group--a former commercial branch of the People's Liberation Army and China’s most lucrative arms trading business--paid $4 million for three bronze heads---from a monkey, an ox and a tiger---that were taken by a colonial expeditionary from the zodiac fountain at Summer Palace in 1860. Now the heads sits in a small antique museum run by the Poly Group in Beijing.

As Markets Plunge, Asia's Wealthy Flock to Art

Despite high Chinese art prices showing some strain from global economic uncertainty, collectors think values will continue to rise due to limited supply and continued strong demand as Asian collectors become more affluent. "As East and West get into more of a confluence in taste and in the market place, it will still go up," Kai-Yin Lo Lo, a Cambridge-educated writer and jewellery designer and one of Hong Kong's leading art collectors, told Reuters. [Source: James Pomfret and Lisa Yuriko Thomas, Reuters, December 18, 2011]

Lo’s home is stacked with rare Chinese furniture, stone carvings and paintings, including an inkbrush panorama of the Grand Canyon by Chinese 20th century master Wu Guanzhong. "These days art investment has entered into the mainstream of investment, especially for younger people. You cannot divorce love of the piece from what lies behind, the value of it."

Despite the art market's vulnerability to shocks, including the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse, when unrealistic estimates left scores of unsold lots amid tepid bidding even in the red-hot Chinese ceramics market, Asia's rapid wealth accumulation will likely see more and more money flow into art and alternative investments such as wine.

"The confidence in the Chinese contemporary art market remains high despite art market confidence dropping sharply in the U.S. and European contemporary market," Anders Petterson, head of art research consultancy ArtTactic, told Reuters.

Hong Kong a Major Center in the Art World

Hong Kong has played a key role in Asia's art market boom. Its auction market turnover -- anchored by Sotheby's and Christie's -- skyrocketed 300 percent from 2009 to 2010, powered by a wave of Chinese millionaires buying art with avid fervor. "Hong Kong has became the sales centre of the world," said Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby's Asia, with revenue in the former British colony on par with New York and London. [Source: James Pomfret and Lisa Yuriko Thomas, Reuters, December 18, 2011]

Chinese Art as an Investment and Safe Haven

James Pomfret and Lisa Yuriko Thomas of Reuters wrote, “While art often comes straddled with hefty commission, storage and insurance costs, it can serve as a fun portfolio diversifier, mixing decent returns with aesthetic pleasure.Even as the euro zone debt crisis rages and buffets regional stock markets, the Mei Moses Global Art Index, a widely tracked art indicator, showed an 11.8 percent rise in 2011 to November. [Source: James Pomfret and Lisa Yuriko Thomas, Reuters, December 18, 2011]

"It may not be a good time for sellers but it's an excellent time for buyers. During late 2008 and 2009, I highly advised clients to buy," said Bobby Mohseni, director of MFA Asia, an art consultancy. "With Chinese contemporary art, some prices have gone exceptionally high and that's just over a decade ... so it's best to look at upcoming or mid-tier artists."

While stocks on the S&P 500 have outperformed Western art over the past 25 years, according to Mei Moses data, top Chinese and Asian art is still comparatively cheap compared with Western impressionists or American contemporary art. A Mei Moses index for traditional Chinese art showed a 24 percent jump in the first three quarters this year.

Owners of Hong Kong's art galleries, many of them crammed along the winding Hollywood Road in the Central district, say timing is the key. "If you get good works of art, then without any question it is (a safe haven) but it doesn't have the liquidity. That's the difficulty," said Sundaram Tagore, whose galleries in Hong Kong and the United States feature a stable of culture-bridging artists. "If you're trying to sell at the wrong time it becomes part of the distressed market but if you're selling at the right time then you could make 100 times more, maybe more than property or any bonds can provide you."

Market for Stamps, Wine, Gems and Other Collectables

Even for those with less purchasing muscle, experts say bargains can still be had in less spotlighted categories, including modern Filipino and Indonesian painters, as well as photography, and Chinese snuff bottles, to name a few, James Pomfret and Lisa Yuriko Thomas of Reuters wrote. "Collect what other people aren't collecting," Tony Miller, a former top Hong Kong government official and long-standing collector of scholars' objects and Chinese art, told Reuters. "If you can't afford Qi Baishi paintings and they're going at HK$2 million a throw, well, go for prints." Qi is one of the masters of inkbrush paintings and his pieces sell for millions of dollars. [Source: James Pomfret and Lisa Yuriko Thomas, Reuters, December 18, 2011]

The search by Asian investors for alternative assets has extended beyond art into wine, gems, watches, postage stamps and other memorabilia -- the rarer and more exclusive, the better. With about two-thirds of the world's stamp collectors in Asia, the stamps and collectibles market has surged, says Geoff Anandappa of stamp and memorabilia retailer Stanley Gibbons. Hong Kong-based InterAsia Auctions -- which specialises in Asian stamps -- broke world records for Chinese stamps in September, raking in $12.6 million over four days. A 1941 Dr Sun Yat-Sen inverted centre stamp fetched $221,000, up 66 percent from a similar sale a year ago.

Chinese and Asian buyers have cornered the fine wine market, with a Hong Kong Acker Merrall & Condit wine auction in December bringing in $9 million, including a single superlot of 55 Romanee Conti vintages that fetched a record-breaking $813,000. Similarly, Asian buying is behind the boom for diamonds and gems. China is on course to become the world's top diamond buyer and retailers in Hong Kong report a rise in the number of men coming to buy loose diamonds for investments.

A Hong Kong jewellery retailer recently raised $2 billion in one of the city's biggest initial public offerings this year to fund expansion in the region. "It's not the old days of 'safe as houses', put your money in the bank and that will sort you out," said Jon Reade of the Art Futures Group, a Hong Kong-based art investment firm. "Those are the days probably of my parents' generation ... people are getting more creative with their money."

Record Prices for Traditional Chinese Art and Calligraphy in 2010

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At the 2010, spring sales draw a number of ancient Chinese paintings and calligraphy works were sold for record prices. Several pieces fetched more than 100 million yuan ($18 million) each at sales hosted by domestic auction giants Beijing Poly, China Guardian and Beijing Hanhai, with one reaching 436.8 million yuan ($63.8 million). Apart from the astronomically-high sales, a large number of works went for around the 20-million-yuan ($2.94 million) mark. [Source: Wu Ziru, Global Times, June 2, 2010]

“This is an all-ascending market that you could have hardly imagined before,” Zhao Li, professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, told the Global Times. “Collectors and investors just keep bidding, as long as there is a rare piece.” “It used to be beyond our imagination that a piece of Chinese work, no matter how precious it is, could be sold for hundreds of millions of yuan,” commented Hu Jiaojiao, vice director of China Guardian. “Things are changing so fast today. Now we are confident that the market is sound and healthy, with so many collectors interested in classic paintings and calligraphic works.”

Hand scroll Dizhuming by poet and calligrapher Huang Tingjian from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was one of the most hotly pursued items. It finally sold for 436.8 million yuan at Poly's spring sales to an undisclosed buyer, the price far beyond the expectations from both the auction house and collectors alike.

The sale set a new record for any genre of Chinese work - from antiques to contemporary pieces, almost doubling the previous high of 230 million yuan ($34 million) for a piece of blue and white porcelain from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), which sold at Christie's in London five years ago.

The 15-meter-long calligraphic hand scroll, Dizhuming, was completed in 1095. The original length of the hand scroll was 8.24 meters, but was then extended to 15 meters over the span of 800 years as its collectors, including prominent ancient Chinese scholars and royal court officials, added additional inscriptions to the piece.

Six Chinese classic paintings and calligraphic works each selling for over 100 million yuan. Temple in Mountains in Autumn, a landscape painting by Yuan Dynasty artist Wang Meng was sold for 136.64 million yuan ($20.1 million). Hand scroll painting Mount Yandang by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) painter Qian Weicheng went under the hammer for 129.92 million yuan ($20 million), five times its former record price of 24.08 million yuan ($3.5 million) at China Guardian's 2007 spring auctions.

In March 2011, at the auction house Lebarbe, in Toulouse, France, a Chinese buyer set a new French record for Chinese art with a $31 million bid on a scroll painting from the Imperial Palace in Beijing.

Chinese collectors are buying up works by artists that few Westerners have heard of. In May 2011, the Global Times reported: “An ink-wash painting by Chinese painting master Qi Baishi (1864-1957) was sold for 425.5 million yuan ($65.5 million) during the Guardian Spring Auction at the Beijing International Hotel Convention Center Sunday night. The auction started with a price of 88 million yuan ($13.5 million) and was sealed with the record price for modern and contemporary Chinese art work after more than 30 minutes of bidding. As one of the largest paintings in Qi's oeuvre, it measures 100 centimeters by 266 centimeters, with the calligraphy couplet engraved within measuring 65.8 centimeters by 264.5 centimeters. The couplet reads "A Long Life, A Peaceful World." Another piece of Qi's work was also sold for 80 million yuan ($12.3 million) at the auction. [Source: Global Times, May 23, 2011]

Not only people from auction houses, but also many experts see the record-breaking prices as a good thing for the Chinese art market, saying there is still a large gap to be filled in terms of catching up with the international scene.

$81 Million Chinese Vase That Nobody Paid For

At the Ruslip auction house in Bainbridge in northeast London a Qianlong-era porcelain vase from China was sold at the staggering $81.5 million in November 2010, beating previous records for Chinese ceramics ($32 million) and Asian art ($62 million). For the elderly woman and her son who auctioned off the vase---which was kept on a bookcase by the woman’s brother in law and insured for $1,400---it was like winning the lottery. Experts in the Asian art field were shocked. London art dealer Daniel Eskenazi told The Times of London, “It didn’t relate to anything else. That vase wasn’t worth double all previous works.” [Source: Times of London]

The price paid for the vase was nearly 50 times beyond its estimate of around $1.9 million. The colorful and intricately worked 18th porcelain century vase is of good enough quality it may have been kept in an imperial palace, perhaps the Qianlong Emperor himself. In the 1960s it was taken by the brother to the television show “Going for a Song” — a forerunner of “Antiques Roadhsow” and dismissed by a BBC as “a very clever reproduction.” It is not clear how the brother came in possession of it. Perhaps it is from a relative who traveled around the world between World War I and World War II.

The elderly woman inherited the vase when her brother died. David Reay, manger of Bainbridges, a small family-run auction house, told the Times of London, “The piece was sold by a 70-year-old woman. We were clearing her brother’s house after he died. I saw a few nice things: a lovely grandfather clock and some old books...Then a vase on top of the bookcase caught my eye. It was on a tall bookcase, It had been there for God knows how long. It was covered in dust, I looked at the vase and I said, “Oh, that looks nice. They told me it had been valued at 800 pounds two months earlier.”

Jane Macartney wrote in the Times of London: “Experts say that Qing porcelains are prized for their perfection. The Qing emperors, particularly Qianlong’s father, Yongzheng took a personal interest in all the creation of porcelain that would appeal to their aesthetic senses. The use of delicate powder enamels to create polychrome decorations was a difficult and time-consuming process. As many as 90 pieces out of 1000 could be smashed because they contained flaws. The creation of a single vase could involved with as many as 40 people.”

Shanghai art agent William Hanbury-Tenison told the Times of London the porcelain are prized not just for their scarcity: “The Chinese can say they exceed anything anyone in the world has ever done. They are a symbol of national technological prowess.” For a long time collectors sniffed at anything near from the Ming dynasty. Macartney wrote: “Porcelain thrown during the early years of the Qing dynasty were regarded as passable but anything lower was perceived as vulgar? Now however “the market is being revolutionized by the rising prosperity of Taiwan and China . New collectors are lured by the more ostentatious colors of pieces from emperors of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.”

The story of $81 vase though seems to have an unhappy ending. As of March 2011, the sellers had not been paid. Some suspect the buyer---thought to be a Beijing agent---has refused to pay on the grounds of cultural patriotism, the same rationale used after a 2009 auction to not pay for the bronze animal heads taken from the Summer Place.

Chinese Auction Houses

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Chinese auction houses are now selling works at a pace formerly associated with those in London and New York. One company that tracks the fine-art market, Artprice, reported that they were responsible for some $8.3 billion in sales, which would make them the world leader.

“Hong Kong has become the world's third largest auction hub after New York and London, thanks to the rising political and economic prowess of China, with mainland millionaires regularly among top bidders,” Ben Hoyle wrote in the Times of London: “Rich Chinese are increasingly becoming major players in the art world and they are getting that way. The amount spent by Chinese buyers at Sotheby’s increased 278 percent between 2008 and 2010. In 2007 no of buyers of work priced over $14 million were Chinese but by 2010 more than 10 percent were. Asian buyers are snatching up Western art as well Asian art. Christie’s said that four out five of the top lots at lots Impressionist and Modern sale in June 2010 were East Asian bidders. At Christie’s June auction in 2008 the top buyers of Victorian art were East Asian collectors.” [Source: Times of London]

Sotheby’s and Christie’s and Rich Chinese Art Buyers and Collectors

In April 2011, Sotheby's said it sold a record HK$ 3.49 billion (US$ 447 million) worth of Asian and Chinese art, fine wines, watches and jewels at its eight-day Hong Kong auction. The auction house offered 3,600 lots in eight categories in what its Asia CEO Kevin Ching described as the "most successful Hong Kong sale series in its history", surpassing the HK USD 3.09 billion raised at its autumn sale last year. "Remarkably, virtually every day saw records broken," Ching said in a statement. [Source: AFP]

Hong Kong sales for Christies doubled to $721.9 million in 2010. An 18th Century Chinese vase sold for almost $33 million at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction in October 2010, five times more than the top estimate for the piece. Christie’s most expensive Chinese lot in 2010 was a pair of crane statues, with the four life-size wading birds waddling off to a Hong Kong real estate tycoon for $16.7 million in December. [Source: AFP, January 28, 2011]

“What we are seeing is that Chinese collectors are scanning the catalogues and the fairs worldwide,” he told AFP. “They are buying to bring back to China their treasures and great Chinese works of art. “It will often be Chinese versus Chinese versus Chinese, with all the European and American collectors being left behind, sometimes not even being able to raise their hand at the auction.”

Chinese Buyers of Chinese Art at Western Auction Houses

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Zeng Fanzho work
auctioned by Christie's
Sales of Chinese antiques surged by 180 percent in London in May 2011 month, Bloomberg reported, as owners profited from a boom in demand for Imperial items by an increasing number of dealers and agents visiting the U.K. Asian antiques are threatening to usurp Old Masters as the third biggest-selling category of the West’s auction market. Impressionist and modern works are in first place, and contemporary works in second. [Source: Scott Reyburn Bloomberg News May 21, 2011]

London’s main auctions fetched a record 58 million pounds ($93.9 million), almost three times the 20.6 million pounds achieved last May, according to Bloomberg calculations. Asian dealers visited regional auction houses in Dorset and Wiltshire after London sales by Sotheby’s (BID), Christie’s International and Bonhams. In December, the three houses’equivalent auctions of Old Masters, the traditional mainstay of the European art trade, tallied 48.4 million pounds.

“Last year, Oriental art accounted for more than 50 percent of our turnover,” Guy Schwinge, director of Dorchester- based Duke’s, said in an interview. “Five years ago it would have been less than 10 percent. It can all be put down to the insatiable desire of the Chinese to repatriate works that have left their country over the last 300 years.”

“The provenance and quality of these pieces is making Chinese dealers buy them back,” Hai-Sheng Chou said. “The prices will probably keep going up.” For the first time, these regional auctioneers requested deposits from unknown clients on selected “premium” lots. Duke’s requested payments of as much as 20,000 pounds to bid on a dozen of the pieces in its ‘summer Palace” sale. Woolley & Wallis was asking bidders for security of 10,000 pounds on five selected lots.

Auction houses are mindful of the non-payment issues raised by an 18th-century Imperial vase that was bid to a record 51.6 million pounds at Bainbridges, west London, in November 2010. These concerns were highlighted at auctions in Europe and Asia in the ping of 2011. Bidders at sales in Toulouse, France, were charged 200,000 euros ($283,000) to compete for a Qianlong- period Imperial scroll painting and a jade seal.

High Prices Paid Chinese Buyers of Chinese Art at Western Auction Houses

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Yang Shaobin work
auctioned by Christie's
More than a dozen Asian dealers and agents went to Duke’s on May 19 for an 86-lot sale. The event included 11 pieces looted from Beijing in 1860, when Captain James Gunter of the King’s Dragoon Guards was among the British troops who overran the Summer Palace. Among the “Treasures from the Summer Palace” being sold by Gunter’s descendants was an 18th-century Qianlong-period yellow jade pendant carved in the shape of a dragon. Similar in style to an Imperial jade scepter that fetched 1.3 million pounds at Bonhams on May 12, the 5-inch-wide pendant sold for 478,000 pounds to a telephone bidder. It had been valued at as much as 50,000 pounds. “Though this was the best quality 18th-century Imperial art and provenance, the color was a bit too green and pale,” Hai-Sheng Chou, a Taiwan-based dealer, said. “If the color had been more yellow it would have made more than 600,000 pounds.”

A Qianlong-period white jade cup and saucer was also among the objects Gunter took from the Summer Palace. Notable for the purity of its color, this was bought in the room by the London- and New York-based dealers Littleton & Hennessy, bidding for a client, at 513,850 pounds against a high estimate of 200,000 pounds.

The U.K.’s regional auction houses have become a favorite hunting ground for Chinese buyers. On May 18, the Salisbury auction house Woolley & Wallis offered a Qianlong period Imperial white jade teapot that had been in U.K. private collections since the mid-19th century. Estimated at 200,000 pounds to 300,000 pounds, this sold to a Hong Kong-based telephone bidder for 2.1 million pounds. A similarly dated white jade vase and cover from a 19th- century Scottish collection sold to a Chinese dealer in the room for 1.2 million pounds, more than 10 times the lower estimate.

Chinese Buyers of Western Art

Chen Yifei work
auctioned by Christie's
Recently the interest of Chinese collectors has expanded well beyond indigenous works..With China’s economy booming, art collectors there have become an increasingly powerful force in the market, demonstrating a growing interest in Western as well as Asian art. “They are present in all our salesrooms now,” Mr. Curiel said. “You’re beginning to see Chinese collectors in the world of Impressionists and 20th-century decorative art. Possibly with the exception of European old masters, we see China in every center.” [Source: Robin Pogrebin, New York Times September 6, 2011]

A few Chinese collectors were ahead of the curve, like Joseph Lau, the Hong Kong real estate billionaire who recently spent £33 million (about $53.3 million) on a six-floor London mansion and in 2006 bought a Warhol portrait of Mao for $17.3 million, then a record for that artist, at Christie’s in New York. Lawrence Chu, the hedge fund manager, said he collected Western artists like Toby Ziegler, Mark Bradford and Dana Schutz “as well as Asian art “because “the artists are more developed.” “There is a little more substance to what they do,” he continued.

At Sotheby’s 2011 spring sale, a Chinese buyer bought the evening’s priciest painting “Picasso’s “Femme Lisant (Deux Personnages) “for $21.3 million. Last year an anonymous telephone bidder who was believed to be Chinese paid $106.5 million for Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” at Christie’s, a record for a work of art at auction.

Western Auction Houses Woo Chinese Buyers and Make Them Get Their Money

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work by Cai Guo Qiang
The auction market is responding to the new demand. Last year Sotheby’s held its first exhibition for the private sale of art specifically for the Asian market. It featured Picassos, Monets and Chagalls that sold for $2 million to $25 million. This year Christie’s appointed Chinese representatives in both New York and London to develop new clients in Asia and manage relations with Christie’s most important private collectors from mainland China and Asia. “Chinese buyers are now recognized in the art world and auction world as the most important area of business development,” said Lawrence Chu, a collector based in Hong Kong who runs BlackPine Private Equity Partners. [Source: Robin Pogrebin, New York Times September 6, 2011]

Auction houses are mindful of the non-payment issues raised by an 18th-century Imperial vase that was bid to a record 51.6 million pounds at Bainbridges, west London, in November 2010. These concerns were highlighted at auctions in Europe and Asia in the ping of 2011. In Hong Kong, Chinese mainlanders wanting to buy an 18th- century Imperial vase and other designated “premium lots” at Sotheby’s sale of the Meiyintang collection were asked for deposits of as much as $500,000, dealers said. As a result, 30 percent of the 77 lots in the ceramics sale were left unsold, including a vase valued at more than HK$180 million ($23 million). It later was sold in a private transaction for HK$200 million, Sotheby’s said. [Source: Scott Reyburn Bloomberg News May 21, 2011]

Christie’s is also preparing to introduce selective payment protection. “Deposits and/or other security may be required at the time of registration for certain high value lots,” the London- based auction house said in an e-mail.

Western Art Galleries Wooing Chinese Collectors

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work by Cai Guo Qiang
As the Chinese market builds, leading galleries are opening satellite offices in China, including the Gagosian Gallery, White Cube and Ben Brown Fine Arts. “They’ve all set up shop in the past two years, and many just in the past year,” said Jehan Chu, who previously worked in client development for Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. [Source: Robin Pogrebin, New York Times September 6, 2011] The Pace Gallery was among the first to venture into China, in 2008. The gallery represents Chinese artists, including Zhang Xiaogang, whose “Forever Lasting Love” triptych sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for more than $10 million in April, and Li Songsong, whose “China Past” diptych sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for more than $500,000 the same month.

Jeffrey Deitch, a longtime New York gallery owner who now directs the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, said that the uptick in collecting in China was not just a fad, but represented a real growing interest in art. “It’s always individuals “it’s not “the Chinese,” he said. “It’s important to understand who you’re talking about.” Indeed, while many liken the latest Chinese wave to the Japanese rush on Impressionist art in the 1980s, others say the Chinese growth is more deep-rooted and lasting.

“Art was part of this whole way of going out and using the economic position of Japan to possess assets from all over the world “more Picassos, more Monets, more this, more that,” said Marc Glimcher, the president of the Pace Gallery. Pace’s inaugural show at its Beijing gallery was a group exhibition in which Zhang Huan and Zhang Xiaogang were joined by longtime members of Pace’s stable, including Chuck Close and Lucas Samaras. “It’s the same thing whenever you have a catastrophe followed by a boom,” Mr. Glimcher said. “The Cultural Revolution was that catastrophe, and this is that boom.”

Implications of Chinese Collectors in the World Art Market

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Art dealer Lin, who also collects himself, told AFP he worries that the significant number of Chinese buyers wading into the market could one day backfire “The steep rise in prices is creating a serious bubble, and should there be a serious credit crunch or international crisis, consequences could be quite severe,” he said. [Source: AFP, January 28, 2011]

Most works disappear into a rich man’s home and are never put on public display, while many are locked away and left to appreciate in the dark.”A great deal of building of grand private homes is going on---so more decorative works are showcased,” said Lin. “But works of very high value tend to be kept away. They are assets of the rarest kind, mostly unique and irreplaceable.”

The ballooning demand in China is also a double-edged sword for the Western collector, says Curiel. “On one hand they are complaining they can’t buy anymore but on the other hand they are also selling objects at extremely high prices they never would have dreamed of just three or four years ago,” he said. ‘so, it’s a bit of love and hate. But, at the moment, I think it’s more love than hate.”

Ben Hoyle wrote in the Times of London, ‘sotheby's has identified a number of criteria that Chinese buyers seem to look for. They include warm colors (reds, pinks and yellows), female portraits (so long as not overtly erotic), landscapes packed with interesting details and paintings, with a strong story.”

Presence of Chinese Art Collectors at Art Auctions

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In September 2010, Souren Melikian wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “Two historic sales took place last week in Paris and New York. The dramatic contrast between the lackluster outcome of the French auction that dealt with Japanese color prints and the hugely successful American auction devoted to Chinese art in part mirrors the changing power balance between the two great cultures of the Far East.” [Source: Souren Melikian, International Herald Tribune, September 24, 2010]

“The contrast with the art of China is extreme. On Sept. 16 and 17 Christie’s held two sales that ended on a $55 million score, the highest in the field recorded at Western auctions. The first sale dealt with a single collection of bronzes from Ancient China, the finest seen in decades. Reasons linked to personal circumstances led the Hong Kong collector, Anthony Hardy, to part with his objects.”

“The massive presence of Chinese buyers made itself felt in this area in which they barely played a role until the late 1990s. True, the three most important bronzes were all carried away by U.S. collectors, but they had to put up a vigorous fight. The most expensive piece was an admirable wine vessel of architectural form from the Shang Dynasty that Mr. Hardy bought from Eskenazi in London in December 1985. A collector bidding online won the $3.33 million trophy, beating an opponent on the telephone to Christie’s Chinese-speaking Beijing representative, Jane Shan.

“Two other major bronzes went to Chinese bidders. A superb wine vessel of the 13th or 12th century B.C. was carried away by a Chinese collector based in the United States who defeated other Chinese contenders to the tune of $1.08 million. Bronzes with inscriptions fascinate the Chinese. A Shanghai dealer determined to get a 12th century B.C. pouring vessel that had been bought in 1999 from Giuseppe Eskenazi now battled with the London dealer and paid the $266,500 it took to deter the world leader in top-notch Chinese art.”

“When it came to more recent periods of Chinese art, the dominance of Chinese buyers was overwhelming. Beakers carved of rhinoceros horn credited with aphrodisiac properties in Chinese tradition triggered extravagant competition. An 18th-century horn cup signed Hu Xingyue was fought over all the way up to $662,500, 20 times the high estimate, between two equally determined Chinese bidders.”

“Porcelain vessels with imperial reign marks indicating that they were intended for palatial use fascinate the new buyers thirsting for prestige symbols. A yellow glazed dish with the Chenghua mark (1464-1487) on the underside thus ended up at $902,500. The plain yellow dish has no ornament other than the underglaze mark on the underside. Like all beginners proudly using their financial muscle, some Chinese buyers occasionally display an enthusiasm not fully warranted by the objects. A Yuan period six-lobed footed dish covered in blue and purplish glaze consigned from a collection in Portland, Oregon, is marred inside by flakes. This did not discourage a mainland bidder from running it up to $782,500, far above the estimate. Eventually, discernment will come. The Chinese learn fast. They will soon achieve total domination in the field of their own art, financially and otherwise.”

Image Sources: 1) Palace Museum in Taipei ; Others Christie's, Sotheby's and Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2012

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