Unlikely Collectors In Far-Flung Rural Areas Gaining Notoriety For Massive Antiques Spending Sprees
We have written several times before about the growing role of Chinese art collectors in a number of art classes, from Chinese antiquities to contemporary Chinese art, and as the global downturn affects the buying and collecting habits of more established collectors, antiques dealers from Hong Kong, the UK and the US have flocked to new “fairs” in mainland China, where “coal tycoons” — often unassuming (but sometimes ostentatious) individuals who have built vast fortunes on the rural provinces’ coal deposits — are quickly becoming a major collector base. As Le-Min Lim writes for Bloomberg, this new collector base has rapidly becoming one of the most motivated (and willing to spend top dollar) of all global antiques buyers.
While Westerners still dominate the most-expensive segment of this market at auction, they are increasingly being challenged by buyers from mainland China, according to John Berwald, of New York-based dealership Berwald Oriental Art.
Christie’s says Americans are its biggest clients in this category of art, followed by mainland Chinese and Hong Kongers. While Shanxi buyers are new to the international art-trading scene compared with their Beijing and Shanghai peers, they are gaining a name as some of China’s fiercest bidders.
“They are a force to reckon with, no doubt about it,” said Kevin Ching, chief executive of Sotheby’s Asia, who attended the Taiyuan fair. On paper, Shanxi buyers formally accounted for just $4 million of Sotheby’s Chinese antiques at its Hong Kong auctions, though the actual figure is much larger because many bid through agents in the city, he said, declining to give specifics.
There are about 51,000 people in China who have 100 million yuan or more, according to Hurun’s latest China rich list, released in April. Of these, 1,050 are in Shanxi. The actual number of rich individuals in the province is probably more than twice the number on the list, said Rupert Hoogewerf, publisher of Hurun Report, which compiles China’s rich list.
What I find unique about this story is the origin of the buyers. On the face of it, there is no obvious reason why primarily rural, often uneducated and “unsophisticated” coal tycoons would be drawn to antiques. I think there is more to it than simple hedging. I think it calls back to what we’ve discussed before, about mainland Chinese buyers being attracted to asset classes that are not only a “good bet” — as antiques generally are — but are nearly as interested in purchasing items that have a cultural resonance.
In buying antiques, they feel that they’re buying a piece of China itself — which is probably why you don’t see these coal tycoons jetting off to Paris or London to stock up on European antiques. I think this sense of ownership in Chinese history and culture is one of the major factors driving collectors of contemporary art as well. China has experienced centuries of other countries taking their artwork out of the country — now, individual collectors seem to feel they have a vested interest in keeping artifacts in the country (or buying them from the international dealers who come to fairs like the one held in Taiyuan).
Lim also points out one of the important factors driving wealthy Chinese collectors, which we have identified before: their love of portable assets:
Like diamonds, the portability of antiques make them more attractive than property or bulkier assets for buyers who have to relocate in a rush and frequently, said Stephen Vickers, chief executive of Hong Kong-based FTI International Risk Ltd. Owners could then convert them back into cash once they have settled in a new location.