China bids on art revolution

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2011, 12:00am


Crystal chandeliers, gold-tinted walls and furniture in the grandiose style of French royalty - when photos of the extravagant decor of the mainland's state-owned Harbin Pharmaceutical Group headquarters recently hit the internet, the first reaction was fury over its lavish spending. Then came the art world's mocking laughter over the display of bad taste.

But soon after, dawned awareness of an opportunity.

'If they are reproducing Versailles,' said artist and collector Lo Kai-yin, 'why not get them to buy the real thing?'

As Sotheby's Nicholas Chow points out, the Chinese have been major collectors of important Western pieces in the past, and once again they are becoming a force to be reckoned with in the fine art market.

'The Qianlong emperor in the 18th century embraced Western science, architecture and aesthetics,' said Chow, deputy chairman of auction house Sotheby's Asia and international head of Chinese ceramics and works of art.

'The homes of the wealthy and politically influential Chinese elite of the Republican period almost two centuries later were filled with art deco pieces. Today, luxury developments in all major cities in China often bear the names of major Western mansions and estates. The potential of this new market for Western furniture and aesthetics in China is just waiting to be tapped.'

To many art dealers in the West facing the pessimism of the European and American economies, the lure of China's art market is irresistible.

A survey entitled 'The Global Art Market 2010: Crisis and Recovery', commissioned by the European Fine Art Foundation in March, showed China overtook Britain as the world's second-largest art market behind the United States, which makes up 34 per cent of world art sales.

Sales from Chinese auctions and galleries contributed Euro9.8 billion (HK$103 billion), or 23 per cent, to international art trading last year.

A survey by Artprice of public-auction sales, also released in March, put China in first place with 33 per cent of fine art sales, compared with 30 per cent in the US.

China's auction houses, China Guardian Auctions and Beijing Poly Auction, last year overshadowed auctioneer Christie's and Sotheby's Hong Kong.

Guardian fetched US$1.14 billion in sales over the year while Poly garnered US$1.45 billion. In Hong Kong, Christie's racked up US$722 million and Sotheby's US$685 million in sales last year.

With that kind of potential, it is no surprise to see dealers of Western art tapping the market. A handful of galleries dealing in paintings from the old masters, Impressionists and modern art have set up branches in China. From October 3 to 7 in Hong Kong, a surge of Western dealers will be making their debut at Fine Art Asia, a show for fine art and antiques at Wan Chai's Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Fine Art Asia director Andy Hei said that in seven years of staging the fair, he had never seen so many Western fine art and antique furniture dealers signing up.

'The number has increased from just a handful last year to more than 20 this year,' Hei said.

He added that Hong Kong used to be a trading hub for Western antiques in colonial times. Dealers would come to the city to do business with expatriates or the British-educated Chinese elite who favoured fine silverware and 18th- and 19th-century furniture.

'In the past, they were luxury consumer products,' Hei said. 'You had to be rich and knowledgeable to be able to buy these items. It was part of the upper-class lifestyle back then.'

But as the handover to China in 1997 approached, many British expats left and wealthy local Chinese families began to buy directly from Europe and the US, leading many dealers to cross the city off their sales lists. It is only now, with the economies of Europe and the US souring, that the dealers are returning in force.

Among these returning is the Koopman Rare Art of Britain which specialises in silverware. Lewis Smith of Koopman began doing business here in the 1970s but this will be his first appearance at Fine Art Asia.

His previous clients were expats and Anglo-Chinese educated in England, but because of the 'great changes' in the '90s, his company shifted its focus to Europe and the US.

'We don't travel that much. It's a big deal for us to come, but it makes sense because there's a big market here and China is a highly important market that we wish to participate in,' said Smith, who will be showing 50 pieces of 18th- and 19th-century silverware - some of royal provenance - worth HK$200 million.

'Facing an economy like this, [art works] are the best protection [of one's assets] against inflation,' he said.

Smith is confident his Hong Kong trip will be profitable because he has seen Chinese buyers willingly pay more than 10 times the pre-sale estimates for some auction items.

Last year in London, an 18th-century silver wine cistern - designed to keep drinks cool at banquets - commissioned by Thomas Wentworth was sold to a Chinese buyer at a Sotheby's auction for US$3.8 million, the top lot of that sale. 'I was the underbidder,' Smith recalled.

In autumn last year, Sotheby's conducted Hong Kong's first private-sale exhibition of Impressionist and modern paintings. This year, it will be showing 19th-century marble and bronze sculptures and paintings - including a marble sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux called Daphnis et Chloe.

Sculpted a year before his death, the piece has a pre-sale estimate of Euro1 million to Euro1.5 million. The 15 pieces on display will not be sold here but in Paris on October 26 and 27, in collaboration with French auction house Piasa.

Mischo van Kollenburg of Kollenburg Antiquairs, a Dutch dealer of 18th-century furniture and art, said he would be making his first business trip to Asia, bringing 43 pieces at prices ranging from Euro10,000 to Euro350,000.

'I don't have any Asian clients,' said van Kollenburg, whose American clients have been 'a bit quiet' lately. 'But I saw Chinese people buying Western furniture in London and France, and here in Holland they buy antique clocks.

'I don't know what they are doing with it - but this has to mean something. Maybe I can find new clients here. If you don't participate, you never know.'

Another new face is Hagemann Gallery, a German gallery specialising in old masters, Impressionism and modern art. Hagemann got a jump on the Chinese market five years ago and now has a branch in Beijing.

Gallery manager Tracy Ma said old masters had been alien to mainland Chinese, but over the past three years they have warmed to the art form and buyers were getting more sophisticated. 'Unlike the West, the best old masters in China are in the hands of private collectors instead of national museums,' said Ma.

While Hagemann's client base in China is expanding, 'we still want to exhibit in Hong Kong in the hope of finding new clients who have a more international taste', Ma said.

Among the items the gallery will be bringing is Greetings of the Three Holy Kings to Newborn Jesus by Peter Paul Rubens.

Ulrike Christina Goetz, specialist of sculpture and continental furniture at Sotheby's Paris, said it was natural for Chinese art collectors to have started with the culturally familiar, then migrate to foreign art forms.

She saw the same thing happen in Russia a decade ago. At first, newly wealthy Russians began collecting Russian paintings. Only later did they branch out to jewellery, watches and Western art, including Impressionist and modern paintings, Goetz said.

Nevertheless, genuine collectors remain rare in China. Huangfu Jiang, a noted collector of swords in China, began buying classical paintings a decade ago.

However, it was not until five years ago that he began collecting seriously. He said he now had about 20 paintings, including one by German artist Johann Adalbert Heine and one by Dutch artist Gerrit Dou, both bought from the Hagemann Gallery.

Huangfu said over the last two centuries or so, only the royalty in China possessed Western treasures. Historical reasons including warfare and the Cultural Revolution mean that few Chinese know about Western art.

'But Westerners have been collecting Chinese and Japanese art, and many of them are experts in Chinese antiques. Why can't we collect Western art?' said Huangfu, who says he now has 10,000 examples of antique Western ceramics.

Still, he estimates that only a few Chinese are real collectors.

'Westerners like oriental culture and lifestyle, and they collect art works representing that. But the Chinese, many buy them only for vanity reasons; because an oil painting is different from a Louis Vuitton [handbag]. They are only into luxury consumption,' Huangfu said.

Most mainland Chinese who buy art, he said, only care about the pieces as potential cash generators.

'I went through that, and I knew it was wrong. Then I tried to study the works and travelled to different museums to see them,' he said. 'But it was only the beginning.'