Auctioneers look to Asia for expansion

opinion hl

It is being reported that the larger auction houses are looking to Asia for growth over the next few years. We reported, almost a month ago, that the substantial provincial house Woolley & Wallis attributed their success during 2014 to the twin effects of their Asian sales and their jewellery sales. Now, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s are identifying Asia, and particularly Greater China (the PRC, Hong Kong and Taiwan) as the repository of their hopes in the near and medium future.

However, there is a slightly different cast to this analysis than that of recent times. Rather than looking to China and the Chinese recovering their heritage in the salerooms, there is a realisation that Chinese buyers are becoming more ambitious and wide ranging in their quest for art: they are becoming a regular, and vital, feature of Impressionist and Modern art sales, as well as jewellery and European furniture sales, especially in the area of highly decorated, extravagant pieces which appeal to the Asian palate.

The new President of Christie’s Mr Jussi Pylkkaenen is reported by The Antiques Trade Gazette as saying, ‘It’s not just the amount of money they are spending, but how they are spending it that matters. They are moving on from buying just Asian art to new categories.’

It is understood that Sotheby’s, soon to announce their 2014 results, will report that their Greater Chinese clients spent more than US$1bn. at their auctions. Quite apart from any national analysis, both houses seem to be saying that around 30% of their sales last year came from buyers new to them.

If Chinese buyers are moving on to European and international items will this diminish their interest in buying back their own art? This is what many experts are wondering. The key probably lies in the fact that the number of new buyers entering the market at auction generally is expanding dramatically. It seems doubtful if Europe or, even, America is providing such new entrants in vast numbers. We suspect that a large proportion of them are from so-called Greater China, including SE Asia.

This represents a newly affluent middle class with sums in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend at auction. This is a market which is set to expand dramatically and which will, in numbers if not in cash, overtake the more traditional millionaire (and now billionaire) sector of the population. They will be the unknown internet bidders hunched over their computers in bedrooms and boxrooms from Beijing to Baotou driving up the prices in the auction rooms of the UK.


‘Exquisite’ Kangxi figure snapped up within hours

London dealer Anita Gray has been particularly excited about what she describes as an ‘exquisite’ Chinese famille verte Kangxi biscuit figure of an unknown Chinese dignitary. She made it available for sale earlier today and, within hours, it was sold. From the photographs she was circulating, it certainly looked to be an unusually fine figure. What makes it even more interesting is its extraordinary similarity to a figure held in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Museum quality pieces are thin on the ground these days and the new owner must be very pleased indeed with the acquisition . . .


Dealer’s description: Modelled seated on a rectangular flat base with chamfered corners, dressed in a yellow tunic outlined in black at the bottom hem and tied with moulded tassels in black and green hanging down from underneath the overcoat which is finely moulded with small fasteners at the front and naturalistic folds and creases, the coat is decorated with yellow and green stylised lotus blooms on an aubergine ground and with the hems painted with bands of small flower-heads in green, yellow and aubergine on a green black-spotted ground, he is wearing tall black riding boots with white soles, the right boot almost completely visible and revealing a green sock and white patterned trousers, around his neck hangs a long beaded necklace in yellow, finished with a small tassel at the back of the neck and at the front, on his head he wears a traditional official’s wide-brimmed conical court hat in black with a round finial on top from which red ‘silk’ tassels cold-painted in red pigment extends down from the finial to cover the hat, his finely modelled face highlighted in black with eyebrows, a moustache and a small beard, his mouth open in a wide grin revealing a slightly protruding tongue and a row of neat teeth, his brow furrowed, the head flanked by pendulous ears, his long hair braided into a thin plat painted in black, the right elbow resting on the right knee with the right hand holding on to the remains of a small object, probably a pipe, the left hand resting on the covered left leg, the base painted with scattered flowers in yellow and aubergine on a green black-spotted ground, all surrounded by a moulded rim painted in aubergine, the base unglazed and with a round, pierced coin-motif revealing the hollowed body.

Period: Kangxi 1662-1722

Height: 16 cm; 6 ¼ in


Footnote: Compare with a figure of a seated Gentleman in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, wearing a similar hat with cold-painted red tassels and holding a small pipe, also dated to the Kangxi period, Accession number: 62.222.9, a gift to the museum from Edwin C. Vogel, 1962, and another also a seated Gentleman illustrated by William Sargent, The Copeland Collection, cat. No. 17.

Wang Ai brings a breath of fresh air at Hua Gallery

When I went into London’s Hua Gallery for a sneak preview of the new Wang Ai show, which opened last night, my reaction was that these were rather pleasant abstracts created with somewhat attractive autumnal colours: the sort of thing that might be drawn to the attention of Holiday Inn for their next corporate guest room makeover. The sort of thing that would be easy, if not thrilling,  to live with. Then, of course, I went up closer and a whole new world opened up. You don’t often see startling originality in contemporary art but I soon realised that Wang Ai had developed his own unique style. Set amongst these pastel colours with their gentle tones, there was a surprising range of subtly placed imagery: sometimes obvious, sometimes largely indiscernible.  Amongst the ancient Chinese characters, here there was a mountain gorge, there a tank or an aircraft or a helicopter. All this is achieved with outstanding originality and subtlety. 20150121_122621 Spot the car!  Mixed media piece  by Wang Ai at The Hua Gallery

Wang Ai describes himself as a poet, artist and fiction writer in the tradition of the Chinese scholar artist. He was born in 1971 in Zhejiang  province. I don’t know anything about his achievements as a poet or novelist, but I suspect he has mastered these trades as effectively as he has the fusion of rice paper,  tea and Chinese ink. Hua suggest that ‘The use of tea seems to add varying transparent layers  to the pieces generating a sense of texture, although the colour is applied in a flat way.’ His abjurance of bright colours and overwhelmingly successful attempts to convey the inner spirit of his subjects place Wang Ai in a long and honourable tradition. 20150121_123006    The exhibition runs until March 20. More information from

Asian Art in London 2015


Asian Art in London, the signature series of events for Asian art enthusiasts, collectors and dealers, takes place this year November 5-14, a little later in the calendar than in recent years. It will be some time before the melange of exhibitions, lectures, auctions and gallery openings are announced: the catalogue is usually issued in September. However, it is now known that the Gala Party will not be held on the evening of November 4 at The Victoria & Albert Museum, as previously intimated in print media. A further announcement is promised shortly.

Unusual Chinese art image 51 Qianlong giant battle scroll

Qianlong silk scroll

This magnificent Qianlong giant silk Chinese scroll was found in an attic in Paris and subsequently sold at auction in 2011. It is one of a series of four such scrolls which illustrate 17th century army manoeuvres. It is 79 feet (approximately 25 metres) long dated 1748-9 and bears the seals of ten court painters. It was looted from Beijing’s Forbidden City in 1900 by French troops. Another is in The Palace Museum, Beijing, another was sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2008, and the fourth one is missing. Maybe it is in an attic somewhere . . .

After a strong end to 2014, what of 2015 in the Chinese art market?

opinion hl

The month of December brought a string of successful Chinese art and antiques auctions throughout England. Interestingly, these results were entirely from what is often pejoratively termed ‘provincial auction houses’, who are sometimes located nearer the source of supply than your Christie’s or Sotheby’s. At the same time, disturbing rumours were coming out of China itself: sales were on the slide and the heat was going out of the market.

As we previously reported, December kicked off on the 2nd with Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull’s highly successful Asian Art sale at St Neots in Cambridgeshire. Their decision to move ‘nearer the smoke’ seemed to have been fully justified: an extraordinary £220,000 for a small, repaired Kangxi vase with a bit of provenance; £200,000 for an admittedly unusual Yonzheng celadon and blue charger; a pair of Yongzheng doucai bowls, £75,000; and an 18th or, maybe, 19th century carved wooden brush pot for £48,000.

L&T £280,000 vase fake Kangxi

Also on December 2, Anderson & Garland of Newcastle sold a collection of some 132 gouache on pith paper scenes of what would appear to be Imperial courtly life.  The 11 red paper-covered albums sold for £32,000 to a Chinese buyer in the UK.

anderson & garland2

The next day, December 3, at Hanson’s in Derbyshire, a collection of jades put together by Russian General Theodor Rubiec Masalski, who served in China and was a former military attaché in Beijing, fetched over £60,000.

Masalski collection sold by Hansons

The following day, December 4, Sussex auctioneers Tooveys exposed a relatively small but pretty Qianlong famille rose calligraphic vase with Imperial connections.  It had an extensive rivet repair to the neck and some losses but, nevertheless, sold on the hammer for £520,000 to a Chinese buyer in the room, who competed with bidders from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada and the UK who fought it out over nine telephone lines. This was the highest regional price of the year for an item of Chinese art in a provincial room.

tooveys 520,000 vase

Sherborne auctioneers Charterhouse rounded off this series of provincial Chinese auction successes on December 16 with the sale of a set of six Republic period porcelain panels for £140,000. In the famille verte and famille rose palettes, the Republic  (1911-49) porcelain panels were by an unidentified artist (single panel illustrated below). They were knocked down for £140,000. It is worth noting that Charterhouse had previously sold a set of four panels by Wang Yeting, one of the so-called Eight Friends of Zhushan, for £420,000 in February 2014.

charterhouse porcelain panels

These dramatic sale results for out-of-London auctions came against a background of shrinking sales in China. Dealers we know in Beijing are reporting difficulties in shifting stock. The blame is firmly laid at the door of tough Chinese leader Xi Jinping who, in his drive to halt endemic corruption in all public bodies, has put, literally, the fear of death into officials who would normally around this time of year be receiving gifts from businessmen reliant upon their support in the securing of contracts, and business generally.

Some commentators have predicted the collapse of the whole Chinese art market, also affected by lower financial growth and restrictions on bank lending. Such a collapse seems to us unlikely. However, there can be little doubt that the Chinese art and antique market is undergoing something of a natural correction: having expanded so fast and so dramatically, that was inevitable at some stage. There were a considerable number of nervous participants in the boom and they will doubtless be breathing a sigh of relief now.

However, we do not think that medium-term this state of affairs will be perpetuated. Certainly, the first half of 2015 looks set for a rather less dramatic sales scenario which may well impact on UK auction prices.  We think that things will improve during the second half of the year: there are too many vested interests in China to allow more than a temporary dent in the market. Soon, the buyers will re-emerge within China as they regain their courage and find their ways around tough new rules and Xi Jinping will, himself, ease the pressure as he sees Chinese growth slowing to a dangerously low level.

At the same time, the number of potential buyers is growing all the time in China as demography kicks in and the affluent middle classes grow in number and in sophistication. They have already switched, to a certain extent, out of foreign designer goods and into experiential spending, most obviously reflected in world travel. It won’t be long before they discover porcelain and painting . . .

Hong Kong’s new, secret inner circle of art buyers revealed

Hong Kong journalist Enid Tsui ( ) spills the beans in today’s South China Morning Post on the emergence of the new young rich of Hong Kong onto the contemporary art scene. Young (under forty) , rich on their own account and, most often with wealthy parents, they are forming discreet inner circle groupings to increase their knowledge and opportunity in the marketplace. It looks likely that such exclusive groups will become future forces in the contemporary art scene. One of the most powerful will certainly be the so-called ‘New Circle of Collectors’.

The SCMP reports that ‘The major museums in Hong Kong are backed by ample public funding, so they have yet to offer the kind of unapologetically exclusive events that the Guggenheim Museum (@GuggenheimYCC), the Tate (@TateYPs) and other institutions are promoting to lure young patrons.’

Apparently, it is mainly the private sector that is keen to unearth the new cognoscenti.

“Young people see the world with different eyes,” says Alberto Annesi, a not-so-old Italian art broker.

“I’m 46,” says Annesi, now managing director of Parkview Art Hong Kong, a gallery he set up with local developer George Wong Kin-wah.

“As a market operator I must understand what they think because they are the ones shaping the future.”

There are a few go-to names in the art circle who have become high-profile ambassadors for young Hong Kong collectors: Adrian Cheng Chi-kong of New World and Alan Lo of the Press Room Group, for example.

But there are plenty of others in this city, as it has one of the highest concentration of young multimillionaires in the world.

These art lovers often have a similar profile. They are educated overseas, they have parents or grandparents who collect traditional Chinese art, they have careers in finance, and they exercise prudence when it comes to buying.

This latter attribute is surprising. The young tend to have a higher appetite for risk, in investment speak, and this generation has witnessed an unprecedented rise in art prices, especially in contemporary art, which is the category they are most likely to collect.

“Art is not totally subjective. Artistic achievement is driven by an artist’s passion and depth, while market valuation is a collective opinion of critics and fellow collectors,” says Sampson Lau, a suave and solemn 26-year-old private equity analyst.

Lau has set aside 10 per cent of his annual income to build up a significant art collection. As a professional spotter of good investments, Lau is conscious that some so-called “up and coming” artists have seen the prices of their work stall in the past few years.

Lau is one of many young finance professionals who are making enough to afford the works of fairly well-known artists. He has one of mainland artist Yang Yongliang’s signature photo collages, and a painting by Hong Kong artist Chow Chun-fai. His buying budget can be as high as HK$100,000 apiece.

Lau grew up with the traditional shanshui paintings that his parents displayed at home, and developed an interest in contemporary art as an economics student at the University of Chicago.

“I had so little exposure to contemporary art growing up in Hong Kong. But in Chicago, I was surrounded by some of the world’s best museums and galleries,” Lau says.

He fears his tastes may be a bit too catholic. He would love to own a Zhang Huan one day, and his current favourites include a Turkish artist whose name he cannot recall. He also likes works by local artists who he considers “unmarketable”.

Lau has joined The New Circle, an international, invitation-only club of young collectors which he hopes can help him become a more confident buyer.

The New Circle was launched by Hong Kong-based Alexandre Errera, a 30-year-old who had a brief spell in investment banking, and is the son of a prominent French diplomat.

At the HK launch in September ’14, Errera gathered together dozens of individuals that would make any business seeking investment jealous. Members have to be under 40, wealthy and well connected. Errera says the selectiveness is the only way for the club to offer events that will include access to international art specialists, exclusive sales, and intimate gatherings with artists and collectors.

It likely looks set for success. And, if it is a long term success, it will almost certainly influence the market for contemporary art in both Hong Kong and, further afield, in mainland China. See