x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

China finds art to its palette

Asia's art lovers are now willing to spend millions, which means that in the international market for paintings, porcelain and other high-end creations, the East is rising.

The Chinese artist Wang Gongxin's installation, It's About Dream, featuring 200LCD screens depicting sleeping faces, landscapes and objects amid a hum of snoring.
The Chinese artist Wang Gongxin's installation, It's About Dream, featuring 200LCD screens depicting sleeping faces, landscapes and objects amid a hum of snoring.

BEIJING // Ken Yeh, the Asia chairman of the art auction house Christie's, has a unique measure of just how far China has come. A decade ago a mainland collector might have spent US$200,000 (Dh734,590) on a work of art; these days it could be $10 million.

As in so many other world markets China now looms large in fine art, although aesthetics might sometimes be secondary. The prominent collector Michael Wang said earlier this year there was "a lot of money with few places to go" in China, especially as many people these days view property and stocks as uncertain investments. Mr Yeh, who is based in Hong Kong, says he is seeing "a number of new clients coming in from mainland China to the market".

He says even before these newcomers, Hong Kong was the third most important art auction centre in the world after New York and London. Last month, Christie's flagship auction in Hong Kong raised a total of HK$2.29 billion (Dh1.08bn), the second-highest figure on record. And on the mainland, major auctions have been doing similarly brisk business this year. A hand scroll from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), sold for 79.52 million yuan (Dh43m) at Beijing sale held in May by China Guardian, a major mainland auction house. That price was not far off the record $15m-plus sums paid for individual lots last year.

While the global economic slowdown battered global art sales, with owners reluctant to sell pieces for what they feared would be less than their true value, the market in Asia has recovered strongly, Mr Yeh says. It is the increased interest from collectors from mainland China, who have displaced many of the western buyers, that has driven this recovery. In some categories, such as Chinese oil painting, up to 90 per cent of sales in Christie's spring auction in Hong Kong went to mainland buyers.

"We've got to the position where the wealthy local Chinese have probably already got their villa houses or they've already bought the cars they wanted or they've invested in other things, and now they're looking to enrich their lives," says Simon Kirby, the director of the Beijing gallery of Chambers Fine Art, which also has a branch in New York. "People are looking for meaningful ways to use disposable wealth and art is an exciting way to do that."

Necklaces, gems, sculpture, porcelain and classical Chinese oil or ink paintings are among the items that helped China take a 14 per cent share of the global art market last year, according to a report from the European Fine Art Foundation, which is based in The Netherlands. While fine Chinese porcelain has long been a favourite among western high society, China's economic growth means more local people are collecting it, and this is reflected in the prices.

But the Chinese art market has not yet recovered fully. One sector that suffered in the slump was Chinese contemporary art. It is showing "a steady recovery", says Wang Gao Wei, the acting editor of Yachan Auction Info, but many experts say it is not yet back to earlier levels. Brian Wallace, who runs the Red Gate Gallery in a traditional watchtower in Beijing, says there was "tremendous interest" from new domestic collectors before the slowdown.

"Sure, a lot of people have a lot of extra cash, disposable income, but the real collectors, there's only a handful that have been collecting for many years," Mr Wallace says. "There were a lot of others making an investment but they were the first ones to run away and they still haven't come back." The most popular contemporary Chinese artists, the ones whose work fetches the biggest prices, are usually those born in the 1960s, making them the first generation to go to school after Mao Zedong's so-called Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976.

This helps these artists make "very fresh and acute comment on what's going on around them", says Mr Wallace. "Everything's happening here so quickly and these guys saw everything before they got to start work." Artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun, primarily known for their oil paintings, are among the best known and their works can sell for millions of dollars. Mr Wallace says the younger generation of artists, having been brought up in very different economic times, have made less of an impact artistically and commercially.

"The only experience they've gone through is having everything available to them," he says. "They're coming from a very different angle - very much a consumerist environment, very much me, me, me. You see that in their artwork." Such "very superficial work" often features toys, pets and entertainment idols, says Mr Wallace, who opened his gallery in Beijing two decades ago, making his one of the oldest of the dozens of contemporary art galleries in the Chinese capital.

But he adds the younger artists are well trained and it will take time to see how they mature and whether they reach the dizzy commercial heights of the older generation. Mr Kirby of Chambers, which opened in Beijing in 2007, says the younger artists already show signs of becoming popular with Chinese collectors, many of whom are "just beginning to experiment" with collecting art. This new wave of collectors makes the market interesting, he says, with a "very palpable" strengthening in the past few months.

"We're at an interesting juncture now because it's the first time we're seeing the emergence of a very local contemporary art market in China," Mr Kirby says. "Chinese collectors are looking for contemporary works that draw on a Chinese cultural background rather than an internationalised contemporary art background that they don't relate to. "The great tradition in China is of course related the ink painting or calligraphy. New collectors are very interested see how artists can work with these ancient traditions in a contemporary and exciting way."