The Future of the Market for Chinese Art

SONY DSC  Many years ago, rather more than I care to remember, there was a game show on UK television which climaxed with ‘The $64,000 Question’. Of course, in those days, the late fifties, $64,000 was an incredible sum of money, way beyond the dreams of all but the most affluent. Today, that sort of sum, spent at auction, possibly would fail to secure, say, a good Chinese rhinoceros horn libation cup or a decent piece of Yongzheng porcelain.

Over the last ten years, the market has, in the parlance of the popular press, ‘boomed’. At the moment it is fashionable to predict the bursting of the so-called ‘bubble’. It is said that not only can the giddy rise in prices no longer be sustained, but that an actual collapse is imminent. Although this makes good copy for journalists (I used to be one myself and can smell a good story), I do not believe such rash assertions are built upon any real knowledge of the marketplace.

Around the turn of this century, I lived and worked in Shanghai. From my office window on the 82nd floor of the Wenxin Tower I could observe the meteoric development of the Pudong district, which was nothing but a treacherous marsh in the early ‘90s. Skyscrapers sprouted around as fast as vegetables might do in a relatively cool climate: one nearby skyscraper was completed just eight months after the demolition of the preceding traditional longtang houses.  The evidence of China’s economic boom was visible all around me. And, at the end of every month, I counted a small mountain of clearly freshly printed reminbi notes. It never occurred to me that this was anything but a genuine boom. Ten years later, my view has hardly changed.

Growth has been steadily sustained. There are now some one billion three hundred and sixty million  Chinese caught up in the boom. As yet, there are relatively few of them with an interest in buying back their porcelain, pictures and furniture. The few who have been thus engaged represent the tip of a rather large iceberg. As that was realised in recent years, the market for more pedestrian items visibly softened as quick profits turned out to be illusory. However, the market for the very best examples has skyrocketed. The market will continue to change: the best will always command ever increasing prices. But good examples of things not currently valued particularly highly are certain, in my view, also to join in on the boom

Why? There are many reasons. It is a truism to say there is a vast number of Chinese. Very few, thus far, have been involved in buying art. But, most significantly, an affluent middle class is emerging. By and large, it still has to develop a taste for Chinese objets. They have been out of reach for more than half a century (and, indeed, many millions of family heirlooms were wantonly destroyed thirty or forty years ago through the excesses of the Red Guard). It will not be long before tens of millions of newly affluent Chinese develop the same taste as their better off counterparts, higher up the economic ladder. When that happens, what we now regard as fairly everyday items of 19th century porcelain, for example, will see staggering increases in value.

That development of taste will not just occur as a result of education, publicity and publication and a search for heritage and roots, but increased affluence will, let me say, result in a certain desire to disguise new wealth. The spending of a substantial amount of money on a Kangxi pot or a Quianlong charger may be regarded not just as an investment, but as the perfect way to disguise monies otherwise too easily assailable in a bank account.

As ever, condition of porcelain, furniture or paintings will be crucial in assessing value but the net will be cast ever wider over the next decade.

Paul Harris

© Copyright Paul Harris 2013. All rights reserved. This article may be reprinted with credit paid to www.chineseart.co.uk as being the source.

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