Art market

What Chinese collectors are really buying

While ancient art and ceramics remain popular, Contemporary Chinese art is taking off at home, and buyers outside the mainland are slowly looking toward Western art



China is the world’s largest art market—even if the figures are disputed (see above). The numbers vary according to whose research you read, but the French site Artprice claims that in 2011, China represented 41.4% of the fine art auction market. The art economist Clare McAndrew, in her latest report (“The International Art Market in 2011”), puts China’s share, taking both auction and dealer sales into account, at 30%, and both sets of figures put China ahead of the US and Europe.

Even if Chinese figures are subject to caution, there is no denying the importance of China in the market today. But it is still predominantly domestic, with the Chinese mainly buying in segments of the market ranging from archaic bronzes to “wet paint” works by the brand names of Chinese contemporary art, such as Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi, jade, ceramics, furniture and traditional brush painting as well as modern painting in the Western style by Chinese artists.

Chinese buyers are not just based in the mainland and Hong Kong. “There are quite significant differences between what people in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the mainland, Indonesia or Singapore will buy,” says Kate Bryan of London’s Fine Art Society, who previously worked at the Cat Street Gallery in Hong Kong. “Because Taiwan did not have a cultural revolution as in the mainland, and because its industrialists travel more widely, buyers are more informed about Western art, and more adventurous,” she says, pointing to the £1.75m sale, to a Taiwanese collector, of Damien Hirst’s The Inescapable Truth, 2005, showing a pickled dove. It was the first Hirst formaldehyde piece to be shown in China and was sold at Art HK in 2010 by White Cube. But these sales are the exception. “There is no tradition of conceptual art in China,” says the art dealer Pearl Lam, who is opening a new space in the Pedder Building in her native Hong Kong on 15 May. “Basically, the Chinese like painting,” she says.

Chinese collectors also love traditional art, both in the fine and applied fields.

“Ceramics and other decorative arts made up a substantial 24% of the market by value [of the Chinese art and antiques auction market] in 2011,” reports McAndrew. As newly wealthy Chinese entered the market over the past decade, their focus was mainly on the Qing period (1644-1911), with an emphasis on the reign of the great Qianlong emperor (1735–96). This is where some of the most stunning prices have been made, such as the famille-rose double-gourd vase that sold to the Hong Kong-based collector Alice Cheng in 2010 at Sotheby’s, for $32.4m.

“For Chinese looking for investment potential, this market [the Qing] offers volume, and the fact that these pieces have age, and were difficult to make adds to their appeal,” says Patti Wong, the chairman of Sotheby’s Asia. “Until recently Chinese investors felt that contemporary Chinese painting was too ‘new’ to have as much value.”

The word “investment” is crucial among mainlanders. “With people from Hong Kong, you can talk about the art, but with mainlanders the conversation is all about the investment potential,” Kate Bryan says.

Chinese buyers also tend to shun earlier works and particularly grave goods, but this, according to many in the trade, is changing. “Buyers in the region are taking a great deal of interest in Ming and Song works, and in the past 18 months we have seen a growing interest in archaic bronzes, jadeite carvings and both huanghuali and zitan [a very dark wood like ebony] furniture, as well as textiles and Buddhist sculpture,” says Pola Antebi, the head of Chinese ceramics and works of art at Christie’s Hong Kong.

Last month, Sotheby’s celebrated a new record for a Song ceramic with $26.6m paid for a Ruyao brushwasher from the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) at its Hong Kong sale. It went to Wong on the telephone, who was bidding on behalf of an unidentified buyer thought to be a Hong Kong or mainland Chinese. “Pieces from the Ru Kiln are so rare that there couldn’t be a market for them,” Wong says. “The last one we sold was 20 years ago.”

“To an extent Chinese buying in the earlier periods has also been caused by the rise in prices elsewhere; when a Qianlong vase goes from $10,000 to $1m, buyers start looking at other sectors,” says the foremost Asian art dealer, James Lally of New York. “But what is interesting about China is that people collect in absolutely every field, so the market is very deep.”

20th and 21st century

As for modern and contemporary Chinese art, this splits into a number of sectors. Chinese buyers are prepared to pay huge prices for brush works on paper by artists such as Zhang Daqian, Qi Baishi, Xu Beihong, or Fu Baoshi— names Westerners do not necessarily recognise. Last year in Beijing, China Guardian sold Qi Baishi’s Eagle Standing on Pine Tree, Four-Character Couplet in Seal Script, 1964, for $57.2m, which stands as the record for a modern Chinese painting. With a prolific supply, the sale of works by Qi and Zhang were each worth well over $500m in 2011, according to Artprice. Enthusiasm also falls on 20th-century Chinese artists working in oil on canvas: Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-Chun or Lin Fengmian. Zao stood in the 14th place of highest-grossing artists in 2011 according to Artprice, and in Sotheby’s 2 April sale in Hong Kong, six of the top ten lots were by him. Also in this segment are hyperrealist artists such as Ai Xuan, Chen Danqing or Liu Xiaodong, popular in mainland China and again, not well known in the West.

According to the New York and Beijing collector Richard Chang, until five years ago mainland Chinese collectors were less interested in artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi or Wang Guangyi, who are better known in the West. Pioneers in this field included the curator and dealer Johnson Chang of Hong Kong’s Hanart gallery, who put together Hong Kong grandee David Tang’s collection. Western collectors such as the Swiss diplomat Uli Sigg and the Belgian food baron Guy Ullens were also significant early buyers in this field.

Now, Chang says, “Chinese collectors are replacing Western collectors in the contemporary Chinese sector.” The Hong Kong-based dealer Jean-Marc Decrop says that the percentage of mainland buyers of contemporary Chinese art in Hong Kong has gone from 15% three years ago to around 85% today. “Chinese buyers are very keen on the investment aspect, and also they saw other people interested in these Chinese artists, this gave them pride and the desire to buy these works as well,” he says.

Western art

Sotheby’s and Christie’s say that the percentage of sales of non-Asian art to Chinese buyers is growing, although the actual figure is quite difficult to define—and, anecdotally, low.

Wong says that “travel plays a big part” in interest in Western art among collectors in Taiwan. “They see the landscapes that inspired the impressionists, and they have been slowly moving to these artists over the past ten years, and good works by Monet, Cézanne, Sisley and Pissarro have gone into Taiwanese collections,” she says. As for Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia, she says there is interest in Western contemporary art, but “Picasso is inevitably the most favoured artist”. His Femme Lisant (Deux Personnages), 1934, went for $21.3m (est $25m-$35m) to an Asian bidder in the room at Sotheby’s New York last May.

In Taiwan and Indonesia, Wong says, Chinese buyers of Western contemporary art initially looked to the US, but now are taking more interest in British artists such as Hirst, Gormley and Kapoor. “But this is not the situation in the mainland where the buying of contemporary Western art, at least at auction, is still in its infancy,” she says.

Last year’s autumn sales in Hong Kong saw a weakening after years of uninterrupted, rapid growth, leading to fears that the Chinese boom was ending.

Last year Sotheby’s spring series, held in Hong Kong in early April, clocked up $447m for almost 3,400 lots sold, whereas this year it only made $244m for 2,780 lots (Christie’s sales are 25-30 May). Asked whether the smaller volume and value was down to a lack of supply, Wong says: “Sourcing was definitely more difficult this year. There was less ‘hot money’ coming from the mainland. But when an exceptional piece came up, there was a great result, as with the Ruyao piece. Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline-Big Family: Family No. 2, 1993, went for twice its estimate at $6.7m to a private museum in Shanghai. But prices have softened for the more average material.” The private museum was reported as being built by the Indonesian-Chinese collector Budi Tek. Wong adds: “People are anxious about the end of this year, because of the poor economic news.”


Christie’s Asia president François Curiel says he sees “no sign of slowing down, and no less enthusiasm” in the Chinese market, pointing to the number of foreign dealers setting up in Hong Kong and the bumper number of applications (630) to Art HK as evidence of the continuing confidence in the market there.

Nevertheless, the consensus is that Chinese buyers are still overwhelmingly focused on their own art. An attempt to interest them at Tefaf Maastricht in March did not lead to many sales, even if one Asian buyer bought a 19th-century Anglo-Indian armchair from Mallett (asking price €95,000). The Hong Kong-based art dealer Anna Ning says she sees some wealthy Chinese interested in “European aristocratic taste”, and the buyer of Lord Raby’s 18th-century wine cooler, which sold at Sotheby’s in July 2010 for £2.5m, was Hong Kong-based. (The cooler was finally export stopped.) But, Curiel says: “I don’t see Chinese buyers moving much into Western art.”

“Western art galleries are deluded in thinking how much they can persuade Chinese buyers to take an interest in Western art right now,” Bryan says. “On the other hand, because of the sheer numbers and money in China, the percentage going into Western art will grow over time as knowledge and information develops.”