Chinese Auction Buyers Find “Treasures For The Taking”

High Proportion Of New Chinese Collectors Boosting Sales As Economic Mood Remains Relatively Tepid In More Mature Markets

Up for auction in Hong Kong on October 6: Ai Weiwei's “A Gift from Beijing (set of three works)”

Up for auction in Hong Kong on October 6: Ai Weiwei's “A Gift from Beijing (set of three works)”

Next week, Sotheby’s will hold one of the most anticipated auctions of the season, its autumn auction of contemporary Chinese and other Asian art, in Hong Kong. For this closely-watched sale, the location is no coincidence. According to recent stories in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, The Economist and dozens of art blogs, mainland Chinese buyers have rapidly become one of the fastest-growing buyer and collector groups in the world. Considering art collection was virtually nonexistent for much of the last 60 years in China (and probably significantly longer than that), many newly wealthy Chinese are taking advantage of the readjustment in prices of pretty much anything up for grabs at auction to bring home everything from Chinese antiquities to contemporary art by living artists.

Whether they are doing this more for personal reasons (decorating their house while holding on to something of great financial value which is expected to grow along with the Chinese yuan) or for patriotic reasons remains to be known. My assumption is that there is a little bit of both involved.

In the run-up to the October 6 auction in Hong Kong, a spate of auctions of Chinese art have taken place over the past few weeks, with Chinese bidders going far beyond the estimates and shocking many observers. The new Chinese collector has, in many ways, signaled his arrival by the manner in which he’s seemed completely impervious to either the global economic slowdown or auction trends, and is quickly building a reputation as willing to spend, brash, motivated and savvy.

This week, on Economist.com, the Chinese collector’s knack for repatriating Chinese art is examined, with the writer concluding that auctions — as a buyer’s game — are all about who brings the money and who’s willing to spend it. At recent auctions (and, I would have to assume, future auctions) many of these individuals are mainland Chinese:

Anyone who believes the art market has been felled by the financial crisis should have been in New York earlier this month for the seasonal auctions of Chinese bronzes, furniture and ceramics. The salerooms at Sotheby’s and Christie’s were overflowing with bidders, more than three-quarters of them from Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan. Extra Mandarin-speakers, all of them fluent and young, had been taken on specially to handle additional telephone bidding from Asia.
 In the last round of sales, in London in May, buyers were both skittish and picky, shying away from anything they believed was over-priced or of less than stellar quality. Four months on, confidence has visibly returned to the market. Both auction houses reported exceptional sell-through rates; only a small proportion of the works were returned unsold. Lot after lot exceeded its top estimate as newly rich agents, dealers and collectors from South-East Asia fought for the chance to bring ancient treasures home.
 
Of the top 20 lots sold at Christie’s on September 14th and 15th, 15 were carried off by Asian buyers, six of them private bidders. At Sotheby’s later the same week, private collectors from Asia were even bolder, taking 12 of the top 20 lots. Only one lot was sold to a Western buyer
 
 
At Christie’s a stout little Jun-ware bowl (pictured above) from the early Ming dynasty sold to a Chinese bidder on the telephone for $1.3m, way above its top estimate of $500,000. Known for their lustrous opalescent glazes, Junyao vessels that have a number incised on the underside are believed to have been made for the Imperial Palace. Any imperial association is prized by Chinese buyers, and this bowl was no exception, even though the blue glaze of its interior was so thin as to reveal the dark ceramic ground beneath in large brown patches.
 
 
The highest prices were achieved by the best pieces, of which white jade, scholars’ items and anything with an imperial association proved the most popular. Two bidders, both on the telephone, fought over a small carved 18th-century zitan box (pictured above) that was inscribed “for the personal use of [Emperor] Qianlong”. Consigned by a collector on America’s east coast, it had been estimated to fetch $20,000-30,000. But a Chinese bidder paid $1.4m, ensuring the piece would join the many others making their way back to Asia.
 
Private Asian bidders also fought over the pieces consigned by the heirs to Arthur Sackler, an American psychiatrist, businessman and philanthropist who died in 1987. Sackler had thousands of pieces—some were given to museums, others sold. There are more Sackler sales to come in 2010. The Sackler early bronzes offered at Christie’s were snapped up, a reflection of their quality, rarity and impeccable provenance. The top lot, a bronze ritual food vessel, dating to the 12th-11th century BC, sold to a private Asian collector for $362,500, compared with its pre-sale estimate of $20,000-30,000.
 
Sackler’s Chinese furniture was sold at Sotheby’s, where another private Asian bidder paid $1m for a pair of imposing 17th-century carved wooden cabinets of a kind that would have been made for only the wealthiest and most prominent families. For anyone with the money—and in New York it was the Chinese—these were treasures for the taking.
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