Asian collectors buying more Western art and setting sights higher as concerns over fakes rise and tastes diversify

The Hong Kong-based collector who spent US$81.3 million on a Van Gogh last year highlights a growing trend away from items of Asian origin for the continent’s collectors, while more first-time buyers are spending bigger money

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 7:33am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 7:48pm

Last year, Christie’s clients in Asia spent less on Asian art and artefacts than they did on non-Asian items for the first time, and generally preferred to invest in well-established artists at the top-end of the market, the auction house’s annual results show.

Rebecca Wei, Christie’s Asia president, says that this trend is personified by the Hong Kong-based collector who paid US$81.3 million for Vincent van Gogh’s Laboureur dans un Champ (1889) in November – the second-highest price paid for a painting by the Dutch master. She refused to divulge more information on the individual.

“Apart from Western works like the Van Gogh, we also saw the auction record for Zao Wou-Ki broken twice last year,” Wei says. “I guess this is a world where the rich are getting richer. We are seeing new buyers from mainland China, mostly, who skip the day sales and pick up masterpieces from evening sales as their first purchases.” 

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It was Wei who took phone bids from the Hong Kong-based Van Gogh buyer at Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art sale in New York. The same buyer went on to purchase other paintings by famous Western artists in the sale, according to The Art Newspaper and reporters, who observed that Wei placed more winning bids under the same paddle number. The previous year, Asian collectors had bid for Christie’s top lot – one of Claude Monet’s Haystack paintings – which eventually sold for US$81.4 million.

International auction houses and galleries, such as the ones moving into the new H Queen’s building in Hong Kong, are ramping up efforts to promote Western art in the region. Some argue that Western art offers better returns than, say, Asian contemporary art, a category backed by a less mature network of academic research, museums and collectors.

Wei says she is seeing more new collectors bet big from day one.

“We are seeing new buyers who don’t look at US$1 million works. They just go for the top pieces valued at US$10 million and above. All are successful Chinese entrepreneurs between the age of 40 and 60, which means that China is still the main engine of growth. No new mega clients are emerging in Southeast Asia.”

However, Christie’s mainland China sales will continue to be smaller affairs, even though it is adding a private sale in Beijing this year to target more local buyers. 

“The Beijing sale will all be domestic consignments and calculated in renminbi, which makes it simpler and easier for our mainland clients,” Wei says. “But we still can’t offer anything before 1949 or works by later artists that are banned from leaving the country, including any painting by Wu Guanzhong.”

Wei says 2017 was one of the “easiest” years she has seen in her five-and-a-half years at Christie’s. That is despite that growth in Asia was only 7 per cent last year in US dollar terms, the lowest of all regions for Christie’s – a figure that doesn’t represent the higher spending by Asians in the New York and London sales rooms.

Under no circumstances would we knowingly offer a work where there are valid concerns about authenticity
Christie’s spokesperson

Wei says at least one Asian collector bid for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi in New York last November. The painting eventually sold for US$450.3 million to a Middle Eastern buyer, a record for any artwork sold at auction, and will be proudly displayed in the new Louvre Abu Dhabi. Asian buyers were also very active in the US$262.8 million Fujita Museum Collection sale in New York last March, she adds.

The entire auctions market rose by 25 per cent last year according to ArtTactic, a research company. By comparison, Christie’s global sales grew only 21 per cent to US$6.6 billion (or 26 per cent in pound sterling terms) – an especially unexceptional figure given the lift the company enjoyed from the Da Vinci sale and that 2016 did not feature any lots of over US$100 million. Sales in the Americas grew the most, at 62 per cent.

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Only 48 per cent of spending by Christie’s Asian clients globally was on Asian art, a sign of diversifying tastes. That may reflect growing concerns about the number of fakes in the Chinese art market, dealers and collectors say. In January, police in China made a number of high-profile arrests regarding faked works attributed to Chinese masters sold through auctions. Senior members of auction houses are rumoured to have been questioned.

“We take the issue of authenticity extremely seriously,” a Christie’s spokesperson says. “Our specialists carry out appropriate due diligence working in close collaboration with external advisers as necessary, to ensure that the pre-sale process is completed in a stringent manner and to the highest standards. Under no circumstances would we knowingly offer a work where there are valid concerns about authenticity.” 

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One nasty shock for Christie’s recently was the January arrest of its Asia head of security, former CIA agent Jerry Chun Shing-lee, in the US for being a suspected Chinese spy. 

Wei admits to being surprised that none of her clients have expressed any concern over the incident. “They phone me up and say they are amused by the news more than anything else. They even express admiration for Christie’s ability to attract talent. After all, being a former CIA agent would have looked very good on his curriculum vitae,” she says.

Chun, a familiar face at Christie’s auctions in Hong Kong, was arrested on January 15 when he stepped off a Cathay Pacific flight at New York’s JFK airport. Christie’s says he was sent there by the company to attend “a group planning meeting” and that his position remained suspended.