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Chinese Buying Drives Sotheby’s Hong Kong Sale To $170 Million

Bidders From Mainland China Dominate As Expectations Are Surpassed In Landmark Autumn Auction

Chinese contemporary artist Liu Ye's "Portrait of L" sold in Hong Kong for $209,000 over its high estimate

Chinese contemporary artist Liu Ye's "Portrait of L" sold in Hong Kong for $209,000 over its high estimate

Over the last week, we’ve followed the Sotheby’s autumn auction in Hong Kong, which included sales of everything from fine wine to antiquities to contemporary Chinese and Asian art, noting that sales were well above estimates and sell-through rates were promising. Today, in a wrap-up of the sales, Le-Min Lim of Bloomberg illustrates how this series of auctions, led by Chinese rather than American buyers, represents a major shift in auction buying trends:

The total beat both the presale estimate of HK$950 million and last year’s auction, which raised HK$1.1 billion ($141.7 million at that time), half its forecast, three weeks after Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s September 2008 failure.

“The bidding was intense,” auctioneer Henry Howard-Sneyd said in an interview after the auction. The mood in the saleroom was “electric” when Emperor Qianlong’s throne came on the block yesterday, he said: “This shows when the right item comes along, the money is there — especially from China.”

Chinese collectors have come out in force over the last year, recognizing quality lots and quickly developing a sophisticated eye for collection-worthy wines and paintings. In terms of antiquities, an area in which Chinese collectors have more experience, however, they seemingly can’t be beat:

The strength of Chinese bidding at the antiques sale defies a decade-old trend of Western dominance at the priciest end of the market. As recently as June, Sotheby’s rival, Christie’s International, said Americans were its top clients in this category, followed by the Chinese and Hong Kongers. Of the 2,400 lots offered this week, 88 percent found buyers.

The Chinese also bought the priciest wines and oil paintings by masters and contemporary art. Over the weekend, a Chinese buyer paid a record $94,000 for a 6-liter bottle of Chateau Petrus 1982; another spent HK$7.3 million for a 1984 oil-and-color on paper by Li Keran at the auction of classical Chinese paintings; while a third spent HK$36.5 million on a mid- 1950s oil-on-board painting, “Lotus et Poissons Rouges” (“Lotus and Red Fish”) by deceased Chinese master Sanyu.

While this article claims contemporary art underperformed, I think the sell-through at the contemporary Asian art auction speaks for itself. If lumping together all of the pieces at the contemporary auction — which included Chinese, Japanese and Korean artists in one large sale — I would say the final tally is brought down significantly by the Japanese and Korean artists, who sell, on the whole, for significantly less than quality Chinese contemporary artists.

In terms of the Chinese artists up for grabs in the contemporary sale, selling rates were excellent, with 5 of the 6 Zeng Fanzhi paintings up for auction going for well above than their high estimates, Yue Minjun’s “Hats Series – Two Lovers” selling for $372,000 over its high estimate, and works by top Chinese artists like Liu Ye, Wang Guangyi, and Huang Yongping destroying pre-sale estimates.

“The Chinese Are Out In Force” At Sotheby’s Hong Kong Auctions

Mainland New Collectors Pushing Contemporary Chinese Art Nearly Back To 2007 Levels As Classic Chinese Photography Sells Out

Sold in Hong Kong for $1.1 million USD, $372,000 over high estimate: Zhang Xiaogang's "Comrade (Diptych)" Image: Sotheby's

Sold in Hong Kong for $1.1 million USD, $372,000 over high estimate: Zhang Xiaogang's "Comrade (Diptych)" Image: Sotheby's

There’s been no shortage of jaw-dropping figures coming out of Sotheby’s Hong Kong autumn auction, as this weekend’s fine wine auctions brought in nearly US$8 million, Fine Chinese paintings took in US$23.5 million, 20th century Chinese art made US$14 million and today’s contemporary Chinese and other Asian art pulled in almost US$15 million — mainly on the strength of contemporary Chinese artists like Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun. Among the countries represented in the Asian contemporary art sale — China, Japan and South Korea — sales of Chinese art were the most consistent and showed the highest sell-through.

With spirited bidding by mainland Chinese collectors, and important milestones like 100% of the classic Chinese photography selling out, it looks like the contemporary Chinese art market is back in business in a very significant way, driven more by domestic rather than foreign demand as its performance parallels the Chinese economy. The prevalence of mainland collectors in all of this week’s auctions could really indicate that these autumn auctions are a major turning point in contemporary Chinese art as the point at which the Chinese collector really came into his own.

Although news reports are still forthcoming about the buyer breakdown, based on the turnout these last few days it seems as if Golden Week has indeed attracted many mainland Chinese collectors to depart with their gold in Hong Kong. From Bloomberg yesterday, regarding Chinese buyers at yesterday’s auction of Fine Chinese paintings:

The Chinese are out in force,” said Jerome Chen, 60, a Hong Kong-based collector…“It’s hard to outbid them.”

Low-key and unassuming, the Chinese buyers at yesterday’s auction sat mostly clustered in the back rows, watching their rivals and whispering into mobile phones between bids. China’s accelerating growth and a 50 percent gain in the benchmark Shanghai stock index from the same time last year have generated wealth and stirred buyer confidence.

The fresh figures coming out of Hong Kong this morning indicate that these “low-key” Chinese bidders were not only present, they dominated at the contemporary Asian art auction, pushing contemporary Chinese art prices to some of the highest levels seen in the last couple of years. One of China’s premier contemporary artists, Zhang Xiaogang, attracted the highest bid with his “Comrade (Diptych)” going for US$1.1 million  (US$405,000 over high estimate), and top artists like Yue Minjun (whose “Hats Series – The Lovers” sold for US$823,000, US$372,000 over high estimate), Liu Ye (whose “Portrait of L” went for US$467,000, or $209,000 over high estimate), Huang Yongping, Zeng Fanzhi (who sold 5 out of 6 paintings, all above high estimates), Wang Guangyi, Xiang Jing and others all surpassed estimates and found new homes — presumably back in the country of their origin.

In October, Sotheby's will put on a large-scale sale of Asian art in Hong Kong. Will The New Chinese Collector continue to flex his (or her) muscles at that sale?

Yue Minjun had an exceptional showing, taking in $823,000 for "Hats Series - The Lovers"

Following the reputation we’ve seen developing over the last several months, Chinese collectors are fast becoming notorious in the auction world as sophisticated and determined buyers. As the Bloomberg article about yesterday’s auction notes, either you love [selling to] them or you hate [competing with] them:

It’s very clear the Chinese are holding up Asia’s art market,” said Eddie Leung, 51, an art collector and managing director of Paper Communication Exhibition Services, in an interview at the venue. “It’s great if you’re a seller, but awful if you’re bidding against them.”

Though James Pomfret, writing for Reuters today, says the contemporary auction had “mixed results,” it seems to us that the Chinese works stole the show. Although some Japanese and Korean pieces did well, they by and large reduced the overall sale figures. Looking only at the Chinese pieces sold, it would seem that this sale was a major success overall:

In the Asian contemporary sale, Chinese artists once again dominated. While there were few blockbuster prices testing the $1 million mark except Zhang Xiaogang’s “Comrade,” solid results were seen for the works of Liu Ye, Li Songsong and Fang Lijun, with most top lots bought by mainland Chinese collectors.

Hong Kong Now World’s #1 Wine Auction Market, Surpassing London & New York

Sotheby’s Fine Wine Auctions Sell $8 Million Over The Weekend As Chinese Collectors Dominate In Hong Kong

Hong Kong is now the world's top wine auction market, having surpassed London and New York

Hong Kong is now the world's top wine auction market, having surpassed London and New York

This weekend, Sotheby’s began a five-day string of auctions in Hong Kong — continuing until October 8 — with auctions of fine wine from the cellars of two anonymous American collectors. Though one of the world’s newest hubs for wine, due to a combination of ending wine duties, encouraging mainland buyers to take part in wine auctions, and growing demand both in Hong Kong and in mainland China, Hong Kong has within a few short years become the world’s #1 auction market for wine, overtaking traditional leaders London and New York. From James Pomfret in Reuters:

“Asian buyers represented 99 percent of buyers in this two-day sale,” said the head of Sotheby’s international wine department Serena Sutcliffe. “Hong Kong has become Sotheby’s most important wine center, ahead of very successful auctions in New York and London,” she added in a statement.

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First Meeting Of Chinese Contemporary Art Collectors Held At Songzhuang Art Festival

Dozens Of New Chinese Collectors Converge To Discuss Art Values, Top Artists, And Closing China’s “Art Gap” Between Key Figures And The Public

The First Annual Conference of Collectors of Chinese Contemporary Art attracted a number of top critics, artists, and journalists

The First Annual Conference of Collectors of Chinese Contemporary Art attracted a number of top critics, artists, and journalists

We’ve been looking a lot at the New Chinese Collector — the up-and-coming art collector who has become a fixture at art auctions around the world without really being understood by many seasoned collectors or auction houses. What is so fascinating about this group is the way that mainland Chinese collectors have really developed organically, and come together out of collective interest in the subject to become more informed about what art is out there, how much it costs — and should cost — and which artists they should be buying for their personal collections.

Recently in China, the 5th Annual Songzhuang Art Festival (which we profiled last month) was held in Beijing, with more than 1,000 artists taking part. As one of China’s most well-attended art festivals — owing mostly to Beijing’s international visibility and status as China’s artistic and cultural center — the Songzhuang festival lends itself to important or high-profile events. This year, one of the most unusual of these was the “First Annual Conference of Collectors of Chinese Contemporary Art” (首届中国当代艺术收藏家年), headed by art critic Li Xianting (栗宪庭). As the domestic audience becomes increasingly interested not only in museums and galleries but in specific types of art, and the middle class continues their (new) tradition of diversifying assets, it will become even more important for the domestic “New Collector” to understand the art and the market itself. At Songzhuang, the “all star cast” of attendees is a good indication that many in China are motivated to help their art market (and art audience) mature and develop rapidly.

As this Artintern article (Chinese) points out, many influential members of the Chinese art world — including conference chairman Li Xianting — feel that it is important for the Chinese collector to become intimately familiar with Chinese contemporary art not only to fill a gap in public knowledge but also to catch up to western collectors of Chinese art:

Chinese contemporary art began with the opening of China [in the late 1970s]. However, with no standard of value in the domestic contemporary art market, collecting and business in contemporary Chinese art was started in the West. Since the late 1970s in Chinese contemporary art — for example after the “Stars Fine Arts Exhibition — foreigners in Beijing have created a ring around the market, a ring which is still increasing. When overseas institutions or individuals gather up works at a low price that we have identified as a representation of Chinese contemporary artwork, then sell them back to China at a very high price, [these artists] are reported in domestic media as overnight successes and superstars. This has been to the detriment of the local Chinese contemporary art market.

At the annual meeting, the Chinese contemporary art critic Li Xianting — the chairman of the event — said, “To establish China’s own contemporary art market, we have to establish China’s own artistic value standards and use these standards to guide the market — is the art guiding the money or is the money guiding the art? China must take its own stand.”

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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.

Auction Houses Taking New Approaches In Asian Markets

Auction Houses Combining Popular Lots To Attract Even More New Chinese Collectors

Up for auction next month at Borobudur's Singapore auction of contemporary Asian art and fine wine: Xu Bing's "Free Bird"

Up for auction next month at Borobudur's Singapore auction of contemporary Asian art and fine wine: Xu Bing's "Free Bird"

With emerging bidders like the New Chinese Collectors, seen in action at recent auctions of Chinese antiquities (and by other auction attendees throughout the summer), taking the spotlight and garnering the attention of major auction houses like Sotheby’s, smaller auction houses have taken the buying trends of these new bidders to heart and retooled their Asia strategies to appeal to these buyers and drive growth in the region.

In recent auctions, Indonesian auction house Borobudur has combined two of the Chinese buyers’ favorites — contemporary art and fine wines — into combination lots at their Singapore auctions. By undertaking this kind of Asia-centric initiative like combination auctions, Borobudur is likely to attract more mainland Chinese buyers, hoping to double up on good art and wine and bring back a decent-sized haul from Southeast Asia.

Rise Of New Chinese Collector Continues As Chinese Antiquities Remain “Recession Proof”

Astronomical Prices Paid For Historical And Quality Pieces In Recent Asian Auctions Defies Global Economic Woes As More Chinese Collectors Get In The Game

In October, Sotheby's will put on a large-scale sale of Asian art in Hong Kong. Will The New Chinese Collector continue to flex his (or her) muscles at that sale?

Since good works by historical artists like Yue Minjun are becoming more scarce, Chinese collectors are expected to continue to flex their muscles in upcoming auctions of Chinese contemporary art

Hardly any industry has escaped the global economic slowdown unscathed, and art is no exception, but recent auction results indicate that the art market — or at least pockets of the art market — are coming back to life. As the Wall Street Journal reports today, in some recent auctions some pieces have sold for exponentially more than their estimates, surprising collectors and market analysts alike. The common bond shared by most of these pieces? They were Chinese — or, if not Chinese, Asian:

Last week, the longest string of Asian art sales since the Zodiac clock dispute was held in the U.S.—and amid the most entrenched art-market recession in nearly two decades, the auction prices of many more than a handful of pieces went through the roof. At the Sotheby’s sale of works from the collection of Arthur M. Sackler, for example, the auctioneer sang out fast-rising numbers, first in English, then Chinese, as if he were rising in the elevator of some fantastically tall Hong Kong skyscraper.

The emergence of the New Chinese Collector is a subject we’ve followed pretty much since our inception, and is a subject that is endlessly fascinating simply because it’s such a new phenomenon. While, technically, Chinese people have collected art for a few thousand years — with the exception of a few Mao-era decades where the practice was virtually nonexistent but for a few elite art lovers here and there — the New Chinese Collector has only existed for around 20 years, and arguably even less than that. This collector base was out in full force in recent auctions of Chinese and other Asian art — in New York, London and Hong Kong — and the motivation, desire and intensity of the Chinese collector is becoming somewhat legendary right before our eyes.

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