Trends Maastricht China

Tefaf special report: a test of the potential for growth of China

Will the increasing number of collectors in China start to acquire more non-Chinese art?

Chinese visitors at Tefaf, which opens this week

There has been a sharp rise in the number of Chinese art collectors over the past decade, but their attention has been mainly focused on Chinese art. In 2006, Chinese buyers accounted for 8% of global sales at Christie’s. By 2013, this figure had grown to 22% and more than 70% of the art bought by Chinese collectors fell within the Asian art category—and this is to say nothing of the extraordinary growth of the mainland China auction houses, where sales are almost exclusively in Chinese art.

Nonetheless, dealers, fairs and auction houses selling non-Chinese art look to China with great interest. The plethora of international galleries that have opened businesses in Hong Kong with the goal of capturing the mainland market, and the presence of the Art Basel Hong Kong art fair (15-18 May), suggest there is potential for Chinese interest in contemporary art.

But what of earlier art? The organisers of The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht (Tefaf) announced in March last year that they were exploring the possibility of creating a high-end art fair in China, but decided in December that an event in Beijing was “not viable at the current time”. Meanwhile, Fine Art Asia, backed by the government, is to launch its own event later this year. The question is how interested Chinese collectors are in Western art from the past, and whether certain periods or genres are more appealing than others.

There are parallels between Chinese art collectors today and American collectors from the mid-19th-century to the mid-20th-century: they share the desire to collect art to show their superior taste; they have the patriotic urge to bring renowned works of art to their country; and they have newly acquired private wealth. One major difference, however, is cultural heritage. The US and Europe have, to some extent, a shared heritage, which meant that American collectors easily appreciated the history, religion and aesthetics of Europe’s past (hence the large amount of European antiquities and works of art that entered US collections at the turn of the 20th century). The Chinese, however, have a completely distinct cultural heritage to Europe and America, and collectors there naturally look to their own history.

There is, however, a basic knowledge of Western art thanks to the Chinese secondary school system. It often includes world history classes in which Italian Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael are discussed, or French 19th-century artists such as Monet and Renoir. Many Chinese people know Picasso as the one who draws pictures that look nothing like reality, and Van Gogh as the artist who cut his ear off and then committed suicide.

In-depth knowledge of Western art is, however, limited: while many people know Rembrandt, far fewer know Frans Hals. “There is little systematic training to understand the art historical narrative,” says Zhao Li, a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. “For those who wish to study more, there are only a few good books on Western art in Chinese, but not enough.” The language barrier is formidable. There are few Chinese speakers with a solid understanding of Western art and fewer still with knowledge of the market.

This limited knowledge of Western art affects what Chinese collectors acquire. “We see Chinese collectors buying works by the leading ‘brand’ artists like Monet, Degas, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Picasso as well as by Schiele and Chagall,” says Giovanna Bertazzoni, the international head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s, London. For example, Picasso’s Claude and Paloma, 1950, sold to the Chinese businessman Wang Jianlin, who paid $28m at Christie’s auction of works from the collection of the dealer Jan Krugier in November.

There is also robust Chinese interest in works by well-known artists at more accessible price points, such as works on paper. The Bordeaux wine market, with prices largely driven by the Chinese in recent years, is indicative of this trend: poor vintages of first growth Bordeaux, or even second wines of first growths, often cost more than good vintages of lesser-known second or third growths.

To get a sense of aesthetics that appeal to Chinese buyers, one could look at Chinese oil painting, which has become extremely popular. “Beyond the big names, Chinese collectors would generally be interested in European art that inspired Chinese artists from the 20th century,” says Hongxing Zhang, a senior curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. He points to styles such as academic, naturalist, and lyrical abstraction. In terms of subject matter, landscapes and still lives are attractive. For example, a Chinese client recently bought a work by Barbizon painter Constant Troyon, Unloading the Ferry, Sunset, around 1855, privately at Christie’s—and it was the client’s first art purchase. In contrast, religious paintings, with their complex iconographies, or portraits of finely dressed noblemen or ladies, would be more difficult (unless the work of art is by a famous artist such as Rembrandt).

Investment is a major factor in the growth of the market. The potential for future return is on the mind of the typical Chinese collector. There is a perception that Chinese art is undervalued relative to Western art. The most expensive work of Chinese art, an 11th-century calligraphic scroll Dizhumin by Huang Tingjian, sold for $70m at Poly Auction in 2010. Compare this with the most expensive Western art at auction, the 1969 Francis Bacon triptych, which sold at Christie’s in November for $142m.

Education is key to encouraging Chinese collectors to look beyond household names. But this should be a two-way street, and general knowledge of European art in China is almost certainly higher than that of Chinese art in the Western world. As the art historian Francesca Dal Lago, who spent a decade living in China, says: “Most Chinese taxi drivers would know who Leonardo Da Vinci is, but would any taxi drivers in Paris or London know who Dong Qichang is?”

Elaine Kwok is the director of Christie's Education, Asia

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