Navigating the Chinese Art Market

In China, art has been a part of life since ancient times. In the last few decades, the country’s economy has boomed, and its art market has expanded massively. The Chinese art market is now the second largest in the world after America, with a total value of $4 billion. According to Artnet, China’s art industry accounted for 20% of overall sales in the $57 billion worldwide art market in 2017. This is due to factors such as a growing middle class and an increase in international buyers. However, this industry is still relatively new and not well understood by those who aren’t involved. With Chinese art professionals warning of a bubble, it’s worth it to understand how this market functions so you know what you’re getting into should you decide to buy or sell artwork.

The Chinese art market has grown from a regional network of independent collectors and galleries to a global sphere of interconnectedness. It now deals with many collectors and brokers from all over the world who want a piece of the lucrative pie. It is worth clarifying that the confidence of these collectors and investors is mainly influenced by speculation, which in turns defines and drives new trends in the market.Nevertheless, Chinese art has also grown in popularity in both the local and international art markets thanks to the repatriation of traditional art.

Demand for Traditional Chinese Art and Repatriation

Appreciation for traditional Chinese art has continued to rise. Indeed, antiquities is one of the most popular categories of Chinese art collected and traded both within China and internationally. In recent years, Asian buyers have flocked to Hong Kong’s auction houses, with sales of diamonds, paintings, and ancient ceramics shattering world records. For instance, in 2018 the most expensive artwork ever sold by Christie’s in Asia is the 1,000-year-old rare ink painting Wood and Rock by Su Shi (fig 1), which went for just under US$60 million. The 185cm-long scroll is an important document of the Song dynasty (960-1279) cultural excellence, as it shows calligraphy and the poems of four important literati of the 11th century in China, as well as showing the seals of its 41 previous collectors. The art in this category includes classical paintings from before the 20th century as well as contemporary paintings that were created according to the style shanshui (山水), involving ancestral themes, materials and techniques.

Figure 1: Su Shi (1037-1101), Wood and Rock, Overall with mounting: 27.2 x 543 cm (10¾ x 213¾ in). Sold for HK$463,600,000 on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

If there is an aesthetic fascination, there is also interest in repatriating Chinese antiquities. Chinese art collectors are actively repatriating antiquities and traditional Chinese art, boosting the Chinese art market. “China is creating new collectors every day, and when a mainland Chinese begins collecting, he or she always collects Chinese art”, said James Lally, a New York dealer who in 2015 sold 40% of his traditional Chinese art to art buyers from mainland China.

As a result of major sales, foreign art collectors are increasingly selling their works in China, and major auction houses are expanding their operations in Asia. In particular, staying in Hong Kong can help dealers and auction houses to avoid taxes and issues with Chinese customs while staying close to mainland Chinese art buyers. Indeed, it isn’t surprising that most of the trade of Chinese art, both traditional and contemporary, is based in Hong Kong. For example, Chinese-French painter Zao Wou-Ki’s Juin-Octobre 1985, sold for US$65.2 million at Sotheby’s in 2018, the most expensive work of art to go under the hammer in Hong Kong (fig 2).

Figure 2: Zao Wou-Ki (1921-2013), Juin-Octobre 1985, Oil on canvas (triptych), 280 x 1000 cm. Sold for HK$510,371,000 in 2018 at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.

The New Chinese Art Collectors and Digitalization

The Covid-19 pandemic had brought major economic issues worldwide and in China which, coupled with political frictions, such as the trade war with the US and protests in Hong Kong, have caused a 10% drop in sales in 2019. However, appreciation for Chinese art continues to rise as seen with Sotheby’s Asia’s highest-value lot in 2019. A 300-year-old pouch-shaped Beijing enamelled glass vase, which sold in Hong Kong for US$26.4 million.

Interestingly, a rising number of Chinese buyers are millennials. “Our latest Contemporary Art Hong Kong Online sale (held in the first half of April) achieved over HK$10 million (US$1.29 million), and almost 50 per cent of the bidders were aged under 40,” says Nicolas Chow, Sotheby’s Asia chairman.

Aside from being digitally savvy and eclectic in bidding methods, these young collectors are interested in art history and exposed to international contemporary art trends, are likely to collect works by Zhang Daqian and Zao Wou-Ki. The 2020 Art Market Report shows a 19% growth rate among collectors who are under 40 years old. This demographic is moving the attention of the art market to the digitalization of the industry.

With the physical restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital world has offered a chance to Chinese galleries and artists to enhance their visibility among younger buyers and both parties are ready for this new way of engagement and art purchasing.

China’s newest online auction service providers are Verisart, ePaiLive, and Hihey.com. These platforms have been offering buyers services and have strived to make online transactions safer and easier. WeChat also launched the ArtJeff Day and Evening Sale where customers can see and bid on modern works by Chinese, Japanese, as well as Western artists using the app, further demonstrating its commitment to the younger market.

What now?

While Chinese antiques will remain a popular market subsection having found an appreciation among American and European collectors, contemporary Chinese artists are also now more connected to the world thanks to the internet and the effects of globalisation. Pop culture, universal themes and new mediums are becoming more and more central to their artistic practices to the point where Chinese contemporary art is no longer distinguished from that of the West, attracting the interest of both national and overseas buyers. You can also expect to see more collaboration and crossover across industries like design, fashion, and technology, as well as an increase in the number of experience-based installations.

For these reasons, China will continue to play an important role in the global art market while developments in the region are facilitating the growth of a better local market, giving up-and-coming Chinese contemporary artists more visibility across the globe.

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