The Mainland Chinese are the world's third-biggest buyers of luxury goods, and this interest is extending to new areas of the market. It comes as no surprise to find that Ming Dynasty porcelain and paintings continue to be purchased at considerable prices by domestic buyers - from both mainland China and Hong Kong - but what is more significant is that such purchasers are showing considerable interest in Western modern art. Possibly this is due to the widespread conviction in Chinese society that art is a sounder investment than stocks and shares, and so their migration into new areas such as Western art, wine, watches and jewellery is a form of diversification.
An idea of the appreciable purchasing power of the Chinese market can be gained from Sotheby's Hong Kong spring 2010 sales, in which over 2,400 lots were auctioned for a total of over US$256 million, with several world records for Southeast Asian paintings (Bali Life by Lee Man Fong sold for US$3,240,000). This was followed by even better results in October, with the Hong Kong auction taking US$400 million in sales. Commenting these results, Kevin Ching, CEO of Sotheby's Asia, said, "What made this sale series groundbreaking in many ways was the growing involvement and participation by Mainland Chinese."
As regards Western art, the interest in Chinese buyers is principally for the Impressionists. As a result, Sotheby's has announced a major selling exhibition for autumn 2010, with 20 works by Monet, Renoir, Chagall, Picasso, Degas and others.
The exhibition previewed in Beijing from 22 to 25 October, before moving on to Hong Kong, 26-28 October. Works are priced from US$2 million to $25 million. Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby's Asia, said, "We have been impressed by the interest in the field of Impressionist and modern art from within China and across Asia in our recent auctions (...) and mounting a selling exhibition specifically for the Asian market is a unique opportunity for our many clients in the region." David Norman, co-chairman of Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art Department Worldwide, said, "The most exciting and active growth in collecting today is occurring in China and other countries in Asia. We have selected representative examples of Impressionist art, and we look forward to learning more about our clients' interests as we plan new exhibitions for the future."
Likewise, Christie's have run two previews of Impressionist paintings in Shanghai, before auctions held in New York and London. Mainlanders have bid on Renoirs, Monets and Van Goghs in auctions in European capitals, and, while of course details on purchasers remains covered by secrecy, Chinese buyers have been successful in many cases. In May 2010, a telephone bidder, apparently Chinese, paid US$106.4 million for "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust," a 1932 painting by Pablo Picasso. This was in fact the new world record for any work of art sold at auction. Chinese Mainland buyers used to go just to Hong Kong for auctions, but now they are travelling all over the world. In April 2010, for the first time, Sotheby's in New York flew the Chinese flag outside its premises.
Ken Yeh, chairman of Christie's Asia, Hong Kong, has commented on the effect that China's art buyers are having on the market. "There have been a very few Chinese people buying Impressionist modern paintings since 2004 and 2005, but suddenly, since last year, there has been almost a surge." It is likely that up until now, the remarkable results at auctions attributable to Chinese investors can be ascribed to just a couple of dozen investors, but now that the top echelons of Chinese society are familiar with luxury cars, yachts and property, they are looking for new ways of expressing their sophistication. Christie's is conscious of the need to provide more information on Western art for Chinese collectors, and the auction house runs lectures to small groups of collections, events that are usually sponsored by investment banks.
While the Chinese are paying record prices, they are doing so with considerable business acumen, showing that investment is the name of the game. They are happy to pay out to secure a piece, but they want to be sure that they will see a return on their investment in the space of five years. Western art is becoming part of the Chinese investment portfolio, and so the Impressionists are a safer bet than contemporary art. Though of course, taste may well come into it. Impressionism is a style that appeals to many Chinese people, while old master paintings and religious compositions are not appreciated. Likewise, Western contemporary art is more difficult. Would a mainland Chinese appreciate one of Damian Hirst's sectioned animals in formalin?
There are further developments later down the line, of course. The Chinese will start to assemble public and private museums, and this will fuel more purchases. The art market is enjoying the new, optimistic feel that Chinese buyers have bought and looking forward to what the future holds in store.
Contemporary Chinese art in the spotlight at recent international auctions
Luxos explores the value of important Chinese works of art
China Winter 2010