Chinese Buyers Buy 18 Works From Collector, Founder Of Beijing’s Largest Private Art Museum, Who Holds One Of the World’s Largest Active Collections Of Chinese Artwork
Big news coming out of the Chinese art world today. Bloomberg reports that Guy Ullens, the Belgian industrialist and collector of Chinese art since the mid-1980s, has sold 18 works from his collection for over $20 million (151.7 yuan). Ullens, whose collection is made up of hundreds of pieces spanning centuries of China’s long artistic history, put these works, many of them duplicates or triplicates, up for auction to add to efforts by his popular Beijing museum of contemporary Chinese art to reach out to China’s burgeoning collector base and art enthusiasts.
According to Bloomberg, the huge returns on Ullens’s sale indicates two important developments in the Chinese art world — for one, the quality of the Ullens collection, and two, the motivation of Mainland Chinese collectors to buy Chinese art now. While the Ullens collection has long been considered one of the top collections of traditional and contemporary Chinese art, until recently the local Chinese collector base has stayed out of the picture, mainly sticking to purchasing the occasional western master or ancient Chinese antique. Now, however, as the Chinese New Collector becomes increasingly influential in art auctions around the world, sales like that of Ullens’s artwork are, as we’ve seen in the last year or so, becoming more heavily populated by Mainland buyers.
Bloomberg points out that the success of this sale reflects the trend that we have been observing since before the global downturn struck, of Chinese buyers (and Chinese auction houses) growing in number and influence. This extends not only to the sale of Ullens’s artwork, but to every corner of the auction market, from contemporary and traditiional Chinese art to wines and jewelry. As the article points out as well, the breadth of Ullens’s sale — which included contemporary artists like Zhang Xiaogang, who sold for 15 million yuan to a Chinese buyer — shows that the Chinese collector has truly arrived.
“Rare Birds Painted From Life,” a 5.25 meter (17 feet) long ink scroll painted by the Northern Song Dynasty’s Huizong Emperor (1082-1135), was sold to a Shanghai buyer for 55.1 million yuan at Poly International Auction Co. last night. Chen Yifei’s seminal 1979 oil painting “Thinking of History at My Space” sold for 36.1 million yuan while Zhang Xiaogang’s 2001 “Bloodline Series” went for 15 million yuan and Liu Xiaodong’s 1990 “Showered in Sunlight” sold for 6.1 million yuan before a 12 percent commission.
“This is an endorsement by buyers of the quality of the Ullens Collection,” said Dimitri de Failly, Ullens’ chief representative in China. “The result is another sign that the Chinese auction market is not out of oxygen. Chinese collectors are still present and very passionate about their acquisitions.”
Recent gains in share prices helped 15 of Ullens’ 18 consignments top Poly’s estimates, de Failly said. The Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index has risen 45 percent this year.
Ullens announced a plan to trim his collection in March to raise funds for his namesake Beijing museum, a Bauhaus-style former arms factory. The 74-year-old Belgian industrialist began his collection with classical Chinese scrolls. As he traveled frequently to China to run the family’s sugar business in the mid 1980s, his interest expanded to contemporary Chinese art. The Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation owns about 1,500 paintings, sculptures, art installations and video works.
Proceeds from the Poly sale will go toward financing the operations of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing and fund future acquisitions, the Ullens museum said in March.
[Chinese Emperor Huizong’s] “Rare Birds” scroll, for which Ullens paid a record 23 million yuan in a 2002 Christie’s International auction, captured 20 rare birds in 12 panels. Emperor Qianlong, an avid art collector and no mediocre painter himself, viewed the scroll so often and liked it so much he stamped it with 21 of his imperial seals. The Shanghai collector who bought the scroll declined to identify himself or to comment.
“This is the rarest of the rare, considering its artistic content, scholarship value and its scarcity,” said Michael Wang, chief executive officer of Taipei-based My Humble House Art Space, who estimated the Huizong scroll to fetch between 40 million yuan to 50 million yuan.
“Leisurely Summers Day” by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) sold for 3.25 million yuan while Fu Baoshi’s “Orchid Pavilion” sold for 3.2 million yuan, 14 percent above Poly’s high estimate.
In total, Poly sold 284.26 million yuan of art in its evening auction, including the 18 works in the Ullens collection.
Earlier yesterday, Poly sold 8.98 million yuan of Bordeaux, 94 percent of consignments on offer in the first auction of French red wine in China.
A case of 1989 Petrus, rated “Extraordinary” by Robert Parker, sold for 320,000 yuan. An imperiale (6 liter-bottle) of 1979 Chateau Latour, rated at between 80 and 89 points, or “Above Average,” sold for 32,000 yuan, surpassing Poly’s high estimate by 28 percent. A case of 1982 Chateau Lafite Rothschild went under the hammer for 320,000 yuan.
This auction looks to be a bellwether for the summer ahead. With the number of Asian auction houses increasing in tandem with the number of Asian (particularly Mainland Chinese) buyers, and the Chinese stock market (which we have established reflects the health of its art market) showing resiliance in the face of global economic softness, it looks as if the time is right for Chinese buyers to snap up everything from Chinese classics to contemporary pieces, diamonds and jewelry, watches and wine — they are taking advantage of the best buyer’s market in years, and they don’t appear to be slowing down.