The end of the year is traditionally a time both to review the past year and look forward to the next. The two go hand in hand. Without an understanding of the past you have no basis upon which to predict the future.
The last year has provided many pointers. There have been prices in the low millions for the best objects. New areas have crept up over the horizon and provide an opportunity for the rather less well heeled: embroidery, clothing, Imperial badges, and so on. It seems to us that the market for Chinese art is approaching an identifiable state where it will divide: there will be a much clearer division between the serious connoisseurs, who buy as a result of a process of considered and calculated choice, and the ‘amateurs’ and speculators, who operate rather lower down the market as a rule, but not altogether exclusively. At this end of the market, they will continually seek out new areas for acquisition and investment and will maintain price levels.
The serious connoisseurs, mainly Chinese resident in the PRC, will continue to snap up the very best items, ideally backed up by impeccable provenance, at a level where price is regarded as a relatively insignificant factor. They will operate at a level well into six figures (around £500,000+) into the millions. There will be no real limit on their financial reach so figures in excess of £10m.+ can be confidently expected. However, the individuals, and the corporate networks behind them, are less than a few dozen. They will compete vigorously at the top of the market in pursuit of undoubted quality and provenance. This will continue to drive up the prices for the very best examples of Chinese historic art.
Lower down the market, are the more modest collectors and . . . the speculators. Mr Chen Kalun, deputy curator at the wonderful Shanghai Museum, (in my view, the best museum in the world) recently opined that, ‘Less than 1% of the collectors across the country [China] can be counted as real collectors.’ Allowing for the fact that he is maybe being a trifle snobbish in the manner of museum curators, let’s say that this 1% constitute the calculated connoisseurs, who buy from deep-seated knowledge and appreciation accumulated over the years. The rest are those we might term enthusiasts seeking to move into the market and the speculators. They may boast relatively small budgets but, equally they are very, very numerous in a population well in excess of 1.5 billion people.
We hear a lot in the Chinese market about the wealthy and the fact that they will only buy the best, the perfect, the item with provenance. They are, in fact, few in number. Most Chinese people – especially the increasingly wealthy middle class (‘nouveau riche’ if you prefer the sobriquet) – are still learning about their heritage and their art, after decades of it being derided by political forces. When this market matures, over the next few years, the demand for anything Chinese boasting some age and beauty, will explode in a way unimaginable to us today.
These are the people already behind ‘blind’ internet purchases, eagerly scouring the net for their heritage. For the moment, they are relatively few in number. When this thing really gets going – and it will build over the next few years – dealers will wish they had more stock, sellers will regret what they have parted with,and auction houses will be desperate to seek it out from the most distant and dusty of attics. The message is clear. ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet . . .’.
Paul Harris is owner and chief editor at ChineseArt.co.uk as well as owner of Chinese Art in Scotland and The Coldingham Gallery. He collects himself, lived and worked in China, and consults for private collectors and corporate buyers abroad.