Western masterpieces offered up to Chinese buyers
A US$50 million Rembrandt portrait takes pride of place in a Beijing hotel room, with Picassos and Renoirs dotting the walls as major Western auction houses look to tempt China’s superrich with Europe’s finest art.
The exhibition, running until Sunday, ranks among the more distinguished displays of Western art seen in the Chinese capital, but is actually a private sale by international auctioneers Sotheby’s.
It also includes works by Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec and Delacroix, among others.
Except for the Rembrandt, Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo, painted in 1658, prices are not displayed or publicly disclosed – but undoubtedly rank in the category of “if you have to ask you can’t afford it”.
Chinese collectors have sent prices for their own country’s heritage spiralling on the back of its economic boom, and are now turning their attention to Western items too.
“What we have seen in the last five years, is that there is a lot of Asian appetite in terms of Western art and the purchase by mainland Chinese has gone up by 500 per cent,” Sotheby’s Asia Chairman Patti Wong said.
“As more Chinese get to see many exhibitions and with greater ability to travel abroad, their interest will inevitably widen,” she added. “Over time the taste becomes more international and more diversified.”
Sotheby’s forged an alliance with the state-owned art company GeHua Art to crack open entry to the China art market, while its great rival Christie’s held its first independent auction in mainland China in September.
That sale came after Christie’s owner, French billionaire Francois Pinault, gave two bronze animal heads looted from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace in 1860 – long a symbol of Western exploitation – back to Chinese authorities earlier this year.
Whether it sells all the pieces or not, Sotheby’s regards the mere fact of its exhibition as a success.
“It doesn’t matter that we don’t have immediate reaction but you see that there is interest and sooner or later we believe that these buyers will migrate into our sale rooms in London and New York,” said Wong.
Some viewers were at the exhibition purely for the art. “In order to see these works before, we had to go abroad,” said one viewer, Hou Jie.
“We had to go to Paris and places like the Louvre. Now, this kind of exhibition will make Beijingers and mainland Chinese better understand Western art.”
But Nancy Murphy, an expert on the Chinese art market, said auction houses were primarily motivated by the prospect of more business.
“I have seen Chinese in Beijing line up for hours to view exhibitions of major Western art in museum and gallery shows; there is a real appetite for more exposure to the real pieces, and Christie’s and Sotheby’s can tap into that,” she said.
In November China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, bought the 1950 Picasso painting “Claude and Paloma” for US$28 million at a New York auction.
At the same Christie’s event, Chinese customers also bought works by Henry Moore, Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet.
Wang, whose personal wealth is estimated by Forbes magazine at US$14 billion, has recently sought to make a splash in cultural circles – although he came under criticism from Chinese internet users for spending his firm’s money on foreign art.
He already has works by major Chinese modern art names, and the addition of a Picasso to his walls is part of a wider trend among Chinese art collectors to internationalise their collections.
But such relationships have not always been happy. The last great wave of Asian buying came as Japan reached the height of its economic power in the 1980s, culminating in 1990 when Japanese paper tycoon Ryoei Saito bought van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet for US$82.5 million and Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette for US$78.1 million.
He triggered outrage across the art world later when he said he would have the canvases put in his coffin and cremated with him when he died.
The Rembrandt at the hotel fetched US$33 million the last time it was auctioned, when casino billionaire Steve Wynn bought it at Christie’s in London in 2009, a record at the time for the artist. Wynn later sold it to the current, anonymous, vendor.
Gu Xunming, a former artist who now works for a Beijing art museum, was transfixed by the portrait.
“I think the people who want to buy the painting the most are artists,” he said. “But no matter how much they want it, they can’t afford it.
“The buyer will be rich, but not necessarily understand art. This is the trend in China.”