Chinese take a liking to things old and British

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 February, 2012, 12:00am

Once they graced the homes of England's country squires and city merchants. Now they stand in the living rooms of Chinese businessmen. Oak cabinets, leather-upholstered armchairs and other furniture made by English craftsmen in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries are being bought in ever greater numbers by mainland Chinese buyers.

They also have an eye for French furnishings.

'Two years ago we had one or two Chinese come to our weekly auction,' Tom Keane, director of West London-based Chiswick Auctions, said. Now it is 10 to 20 per week.'

This spring, Keane's company will ship a container load of about 100 English and French antiques to a private investor in Beijing. It shipped 60 pieces to the same investor last November, its first large export.

The popularity of European antiques in China is reflected in the prices, which can be as much as 50 times those paid in Britain.

'The asking price for a coffee table in the United Kingdom might be GBP40 (HK$490), but in China it will fetch GBP2,000,' Keane said. 'And a French cabinet that sells for GBP200-GBP300 in the UK, fetches GBP7,500 in China.'

British antiques are being shipped over from Australia, as well as Britain, to satisfy demand.

The Chinese are attracted to the history and craftsmanship of the pieces.

'They don't want copies any more. They want the real thing,' Keane said.

Chinese buyers are increasingly active at the top end of the market.

Jeremy Smith, head of English furniture at auctioneer, Sotheby's, said Chinese antique buyers were interested in Boulle furniture, a French style originating from the 17th and 18th centuries characterised by the use of brass and tortoiseshell inlays, mainly for cabinets, and which English craftsmen adopted.

Christie's auction house in London made 13 per cent of its sales to Chinese buyers last year.

Chinese purchases at Christies included an English Georgian commode made from satinwood and sycamore which sold for GBP34,850, and a Georgian tortoiseshell clock which sold for GBP42,050, twice the guide price.

Orlando Rock, deputy chairman for Europe at Christie's auctioneers, said the influence of Asian collectors was an ever-growing force - one that so far had been mainly nationalistic, with Chinese repatriating Chinese works of art.

'However, some Hong Kong and mainland Chinese are starting to move into different fields as they become more interested in the West.'

The Chinese are not alone in wanting precious pieces. 'High-end English furniture was popular with US and UK buyers in the past, but that has spread to include South American, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern buyers,' Rock said.

However, the Chinese are isolated in their passion for lower- and middle-market English antique furniture.

Modern-day Britons consider these predominantly dark brown pieces dowdy and old-fashioned, so prices for them have stagnated, a situation exacerbated by recession and austerity.

'The middle market for English furniture is struggling,' Rock said. 'A brown Georgian cabinet that sold for GBP3,000 three years ago is probably worth the same today. Values have not really changed.'

If the Chinese enthusiasm for this range of antiques continues to grow, this may help raise prices in Britain Keane said. A piece that sold for GBP200 today may go for GBP250 within the next couple of years, he believes.

Chinese buyers of British homes sometimes buy antiques to furnish them.

Sotheby's International Realty sold a multimillion-pound house in St James's Square, London, to a Chinese buyer and helped him furnish it with period brown English furniture.

'When Chinese people come here they do want to surround themselves with English furniture,' Charlie Smith, managing director of Sotheby's International Realty, said.

'It's the natural thing to do. We would want to surround ourselves with Chinese pieces if we lived in China.'



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