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Print Edition> Lifestyle
UPDATED: April 12, 2010 NO. 15 APRIL 15, 2010
A Growing Appetite for Art
Chinese as well as international buyers are showing great interest in collecting

Surprising outcome


VALUABLE MASTERPIECE: Ba Da Shan Ren's Two Mynas on a Rock is shown to the public during the preview at Sotheby's New York auction in March (WU KAIXIANG) 

"The exciting part was very much focusing on the Chinese art," said Howard-Sneyd. "I've been to some exciting sales in my time which have very big numbers, but this was the single most extraordinary auction I've ever been to. The room was more packed than any room perhaps I've ever seen. People jumped and shouted out numbers."

The sales of the auction during Asia Week, which they thought may have made $4-5 million, ended up making $30-40 million, "a huge jump from what we expected," Howard-Sneyd said.

He also mentioned that the market grew from 2006 when Sotheby's ran a full steam of about $70 million. The next year the amount doubled before the global economic downturn hit the market in 2008.

As far as Chinese contemporary art was concerned, Eric J. Zetterquist, a gallery owner and art dealer in New York, said distinctions should be made between two different types of subjects. He has dealt primarily in Song Dynasty Chinese ceramics for 18 years, a field he thinks is "one of the pinnacles of worldwide art history."

Zetterquist said a lot of "over-hyped, over-priced" contemporary art from China during the past 15 years was contemporary Western art made by Chinese people.

"It became a highly speculative market, fueled mainly by Western collectors," he said. The bubble deflated because many Westerners who were interested in art as an investment and who had been speculating stopped buying when the recession hit, he added.

By comparison, "artists who are contemporizing and re-inventing Chinese art, incorporating and updating traditional Chinese artistic techniques in new ways are the artists whose work will mean something 20 years from now," said Zetterquist. His favorite example is Liu Dan, a classically trained "modern literati-type character" who "has taken classical Chinese painting in a new and intellectually rich direction."


A recent report commissioned by the European Fine Art Foundation, the International Art Market 2007-2009, shows China continues to gain shares in the global art market. The Chinese art market increased aggregate sales in 2009 by 12 percent to 4.2 billion euro, accounting for 14 percent of the global market. China has become the third largest art sales market worldwide since 2007.

The fast growth of the Chinese market does not have much to do with Western collectors, but is driven more by Chinese collectors who are developing an interest in the field, said Arnold Chang, an ink and wash painter who has been working as an art dealer in auction houses and commercial galleries for more than 20 years.

When he worked with auction houses in the 1970s, Chang told Beijing Review, there were mostly Western participants at auctions and very few Asian faces. "Now you can see a lot of Chinese buyers at auctions everywhere," he said.

Greater numbers of Chinese buyers were coming to New York to try to buy Chinese works of art, Loong said. Previously, Chinese buyers concentrated on Qing Dynasty ceramics but in the last few years "they have demonstrated, with great buying power, a broader interest in early jades, bronzes and furniture. Fine porcelain is still a favorite."

Enthusiasm shown by Chinese buyers has boosted Howard-Sneyd's confidence that there will be a more stable market after a recession period in which the market has found it "extremely difficult to find buyers."

"One of the reasons that make me feel very confident is the Chinese themselves now are starting to collect in a fairly significant manner," he said, "and this will continue."

Based on his experiences, Chang said, many Chinese collectors were buying art as an investment, while most Westerners he worked with were collecting because of their own interest.

Howard-Sneyd expressed a similar opinion. At the moment, inside China, there was a lot more investment involved in the art market, he said. But there were also a number of people who had started off purely as investors and ended up with an appreciation of aesthetics.

"Chinese buyers are willing to pay a lot for the art, as if they don't care about the price," Chang said. It is very obvious at auctions where some Chinese buyers just continue raising the bidding.

Chang said Western collectors whom he had known for many years now found it hard to compete with Chinese buyers at auctions who were not hesitating to spend substantial money on what they wanted.

Chinese collectors love auctions, perhaps because they are an easy and open way to acquire art, according to Howard-Sneyd. Chang's opinion differs. He thinks maybe direct competition at the auctions gives Chinese a greater sense of achievement.

Whatever the reason, Chinese collectors don't have as much experience as their Western counterparts in terms of dealing with art dealers. Zetterquist said it's a better way to deal with the experts because a good dealer can "help to design and craft a collection."

"If a collector is working with a reputable dealer and collecting in a sane and careful way, they often end up spending less than at auction," said Zetterquist. "And, also, they often have an opportunity to buy a nice piece of artwork first."

(Reporting from New York)

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