While the record for a contemporary Chinese artist was set during the stellar auction of works from Guy Ullens’ collection at Sotheby’s (Zhang Xiaogang’s Forever Lasting Love (Triptych), 1988, sold for $10.1m on 3 April), most of the buyers at the auction were not from mainland China (see sale report, TAN2/p12). “I would say that there is definitely growth in this area, but much more than that, there is great potential,” said Alexander Branczik, the director of contemporary art at Sotheby’s London, prior to the sale.
What is true is that the auction houses and galleries are gearing up for the expected demand. “More and more Chinese buyers will be showing up in the contemporary market in the coming years,” said Li Danqing, the sales director at Beijing’s contemporary gallery Long March Space.
What has prompted this expectation? For a start, the history of collecting is littered with buyers who began buying work from their heritage and then became avid collectors of their nation’s contemporary artists, as the British did in the 19th century. Further, all categories of collecting are expected to benefit from the dramatic increase in China’s wealth: the 2010 Hurun Rich List shows that in that year, individuals with over Rmb1bn ($150m) had risen by 36.3% to 1,363, up from 24 only ten years ago. The new wealthy include financiers and entrepreneurs but also, according to Li, “architects, actors, singers, lawyers and all sorts of social celebrities”.
As well as such diversity among the wealthy, what is distinct about Chinese collectors is that they are “omnivorous in their collecting behaviour”, said Michael Plummer of art advisory firm Artvest Partners in a recent report. “In addition to activity in wine, jewellery and watches, they are branching out to impressionist and modern art, old master paintings and 19th-century art.” Younger generations in particular are interested in their contemporary art scene. “Young people, with a more international outlook, now account for around half the people at private views in contemporary galleries in Shanghai,” said Zhong Lili, who runs an art consultancy in the city.
Early forays into the contemporary market show a taste for works that employ traditional techniques by artists including Xu Bing, who uses printmaking and calligraphy, Gu Wenda, whose works also use calligraphy, as well as traditional Chinese poetry, and the photography and video artist Qiu Zhijie, who overlays many of his works with calligraphic Chinese characters.
But more appealing to the Chinese collector are contemporary works that draw on imagery and aesthetics with a history of cultural meaning, said Li. For example, Zhan Wang’s rock series sculptures evoke a long history of rock collecting and appreciation in China. Zhan also features on ArtTactic’s recently compiled “artist confidence indicator” (which measures the opinions of 76 “carefully selected art insiders”, most of whom are Hong Kong and mainland China dealers). Top-ranked artists are those with an international brand: Yang Fudong, Ai Weiwei, Liu Xiaodong and Zeng Fanzhi lead the pack. “The priority is to look for a big brand artist,” said Eric Chang, Christie’s head of Asian contemporary and Chinese 20th-century art. “Then collectors want something that relates to their tradition, culture or skill.”
Meanwhile, tales of the mainland Chinese collector also acquiring a taste for modern and contemporary Western art have been “overblown”, said dealer Ben Brown who runs a gallery in Hong Kong. “I’ve never sold to any mainland Chinese collector,” he said. From Asia, he predominantly sees buyers from Taiwan and South Korea. One other key deterrent is that, should mainland Chinese buyers wish to bring such a work into the country (and most of these works are available overseas, including Hong Kong), they face a 34% tax on imported art. This, said Plummer, “seems to be a counter productive policy”, in view of the country’s collecting ambitions.
Despite this, said Branczik, contemporary and modern art initiatives such as the increasingly blue-chip art fair, Art HK (26-29 May), are helping collectors “reach a tipping point” in terms of arousing Chinese interest in global contemporary and modern art. “There is a huge interest, but people need educating. They don’t really have a benchmark for works yet,” said Zhong.
What is certain is that, should mainland Chinese wealth turn its attention to contemporary art, it would have major implications for the collecting patterns in that sector, as it has done elsewhere. “When the Chinese decide as a group to focus on a new collecting category, as seen with top-flight wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, they radically transform the economics of a collecting sector,” said Artvest’s Jeff Rabin. New Asian collectors’ willingness to see art as an investment and a predisposition to buy at auction (with an average mainland buy-in rate of over 45%, according to the latest Tefaf report by Clare McAndrew) have major implications for the dynamics of the global market.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘“Is a new generation turning to contemporary art?” '