Auction houses place bets on Chinese buyers picking up Impressionist and modern art in 2016

Christie’s and Sotheby’s confident about market, predicting mainland collectors will shift tastes from Asian art to Western trophy pieces

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 January, 2016, 7:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2016, 6:45pm

Economists have warned that the art market bubble will burst this year, but players remain confident, placing their bets on Asian art lovers – in particular those from China – buying up more Western trophy pieces.

Critics say parts of the art market, especially post-war and contemporary art, is in “bubble territory”. But auctioneers are holding on to the belief that Impressionist and modern artworks are still worth investing in despite the grim economic outlook.

The Guardian reported this month that a study by economics professors at the University of Luxembourg pointed out that the global art market was “overheating” and was likely to see “severe correction” in post-war and contemporary artworks.

The report said conditions today were reminiscent of the 1990 bubble but that the market was still inflating like a “mania phase of its formation”.

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According to Artprice’s Global Art Market Report, 2015 was a steady year despite the looming economic and financial crisis. The western art auction turnover remained at its 2014 level of more than US$11.2 billion – more than double 2005’s US$4.6 billion.

The China market, on the other hand, saw a slowdown, with last year’s annual art auction total close to 2010’s US$3.7 billion.

Critics said record sales – such as Christie’s auction of Picasso’s 1955 painting Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) for US$179.4 million and Modigliani’s 1917-18 Nu couché for US$170.4 million to Chinese collector Liu Yiqian – did not reflect reality.

But art advisor Jehan Chu, director of Vermillion Art Collections, did not agree there was a bubble to be burst. Artworks were increasingly considered a stable store of long-term value, he said.

“We are experiencing some slowness but the top of the market is still growing,” Chu said.

Giovanna Bertazzoni, Christie’s deputy chairman and senior director of global auctions, said 2015 saw a 20 per cent increase in Asian buyers bidding for Impressionist and modern artworks. The art scene had seen a 60 per cent rise in Asian buyers since 2012, said Bertazzoni, who was visiting Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland to promote Christie’s London Impressionist and modern art sale on February 2.

She said that unlike buyers from other markets, those from the mainland were bidding at all levels, from the pricier Modiglianis and Picassos to ceramics starting from £1,000 (HK$11,100).

“They go within one year from general purchases to sophisticated purchases, such as Surrealism and Max Ernst,” she said. “These are ... not simply a purchase for decorating the walls.”

Among the highlights of the upcoming London sale are Marc Chagall’s 1928 Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel, with a pre-sale estimate of £4.8 million to £6.8 million, and Ernst’s 1941 The Stolen Mirror, with a pre-sale estimate of £7 million to £10 million.

Another auction house, Spink, concluded a sale of rare stamps and banknotes totalling HK$100 million. The Mizuhara collection of stamps went for a record HK$83.5 million, the largest sale in Asia and largest single vendor total. “The premium end of the market always sells well and is always liquid,” Spink CEO Olivier Stocker said.

Additional reporting from The Guardian