Wealth Blog

Art auctions – Chinese collectors buying their past

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 9:39am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 12:47pm

You can’t move in Hong Kong at the moment without bumping into someone headed to an art auction or an art fair. The market for Chinese art has exploded over the last decade, but then it sagged, and now seems to be surging at full speed again. The statistics for the Sotheby’s auction in New York last month were staggering, with records being broken all over the place.

Granted the classics, best and oldest treasures tend to go under the hammer in the US, so it’s not really likening apples with apples to compare New York sales with Hon Kong’s where the art offered is generally more contemporary here. Yet this week and last, records have been tumbling here too.

Records tumble here too

Sotheby’s five days of Hong Kong sales in their autumn 2013 series totalled HK$4.196 billion / US$538 million, surpassing ore-sale estimates of HK$2.88b / US$369.23 m.

Not only did they have the world action record for a Chinese sculpture, a big Ming Gilt-Bronze Figure Of A Seated Shakyamuni Buddha, which made HK$236.44m / US$30.3m.

Another record was achieved for contemporary Asian art, plus the world auction record for a work by a living Chinese artist with Zeng Fanzhi’s The Last Supper, which fetched HK$180.44m / US$23.13 m.

You get the picture. Buyers were shelling out telephone numbers for Chinese art. This follows hard on the heels of the week of Asian Art sales at Sotheby’s New York, which made a total of US$74,077,814, more than double the combined low estimate (est. $30/43 m). Bidding was brisk for two thousand years of Asian Art spanning from Archaic Chinese Bronzes to Modern Indian Paintings. The highest price of the week in New York saw The Gong Fu Tie Calligraphy by Su Shi, described by the auction house as”one of the towering figures of early Chinese history, make $8,229,000.

Sotheby’s were understandably upbeat. “Worldwide bidding was principally by collectors from the US, Europe, and across Asia, driving prices for the very best pieces over their high estimates. Sotheby’s was the first auction house to hold dedicated sales of Classical Chinese Paintings in New York and this week’s auction led by The Gong Fu Tie Calligraphy demonstrated the continued strength of this market,” enthused Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby’s Vice Chairman, Asian Art.

Extremely lively market

”I’ve never seen so many mainland Chinese clients in Hong Kong,” said Dessa Goddard, director of Asian Art for Bonhams North America. “Hong Kong was an extremely lively market.” I caught up with her minutes before she boarded a plane for home after the Hong Kong sales. “There were lots of choices with all the auction houses having sales and the Asian Art and Contemporary Art fairs on too.”

It’s a good time in the Asian market, she adds. New York’s sales drew old and new buyers. She notices the Chinese buyers have learnt their lessons and are getting much more selective. “Not everything sells now, even the new people see it as a learning opportunity,” she says.

Artron.net, the China art site has taken off and become the education tool and must-read for all mainland art lovers and collectors, it seems. You can read about what’s hot and what’s not, it’s very popular, and tells you the areas to look out for and collect.

Goddard says its mind-blowing how much information the site carries. ”There’s lots of it, it’s not only prestigious to be seen reading it, they do it because it’s important for Chinese collectors to be involved and knowledgeable about China’s art and their own heritage,” she stresses. The new wave of mainland art collectors is very interested in provenance, for them art works must be in the best condition and being fresh to market is important. That’s because a lot of things are coming back on the market for a second and third time. This too builds provenance.

Obviously the art market has a cyclical tendency, but nevertheless, prices for Chinese art have skyrocketed over the past 10 years, she says. “China is a huge country with an incredible wealth base and it’s only getting bigger,” observes Goddard. The big buyers are predominantly mainland Chinese at the auctions in San Francisco and New York too - the complexion of the market has completely changed. “Over 90 per cent are mainland Chinese clients or people representing Chinese clients.”

So why, and why now? “It’s a luxury market, they are buying for all the usual reasons, and, Chinese clients are very interested in collecting their past.”