Chinese art buyers shun smaller shops for major auction houses

The art fanciers are keen to acquire the best pieces, not spend with city's smaller dealers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 May, 2013, 4:21am

Mainland Chinese make up a quarter of the world's fine art buyers, but this does not mean local art dealers have benefited.

"Chinese buyers usually either buy at auctions or from the most reputable and best known dealers," said Sotheby's Asia CEO Kevin Ching.

"So Hong Kong's smaller dealers or dealers specialising in niche markets may benefit less from mainlanders' [business]."

This explains the near disappearance of customers at antique and curio shops, while auction sales have boomed and prominent local dealers such as William Chak Kin-man have more business than they can deal with.

"It's been really bad in the past few years. The Europeans don't come because, let's be honest, they don't have the money," said the owner of an antiques shop on Upper Lascar Row that had formerly relied heavily on tourists's business.

The larger shops on Hollywood Road are doing slightly better, although many say they don't get a significant share of business from mainland buyers.

"It was easier to do business with Westerners; the mainlanders don't buy much," said the Hing Fat Kok Arts Company's Amy Lau.

"Business has slowed, and my customers are mostly from the mainland now, but most are buying items for personal enjoyment not for investment," said Kwan Kai-wa of Wing Wah Court, which specialises in jade.

Chinese fine art buyers made up 25 per cent of world buyers this year, losing their top spot of 30 per cent after Beijing reined in speculative activities and better enforced import duties.

But mainland buyers continue to send agents to auction houses around the world to bid on the most sought-after items. Auctions account for nearly 70 per cent of art sales across China, according to a recent survey by research firm Arts Economics.

"It's not that there has been a sharp decrease in Western bidders…it's that because of the buying power of the Chinese they are the ones who win the objects in the end," said Ching.

At Christie's global auctions, the number of clients from the mainland had doubled since 2008, said a spokeswoman.

In Sotheby's Asia headquarters in Hong Kong, the percentage of Chinese buyers had jumped from 5 per cent in 2005 to 40 per cent last year, and the percentage of Chinese bidders at auctions could be as high as 90 per cent.