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Putting heart into the art

Updated: 2013-12-23 09:25
By Li Xiang ( China Daily)

Putting heart into the art

Demand from wealthy Chinese investors keeps world art market ticking over, Li Xiang reports

When Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group paid a record-breaking $28.2 million for a Picasso painting at a Christie's auction last month, more than double the high-end estimate for the artwork, it showed that not only is the art market doing well in China, but also growing in appeal as a haven for wealthy investors.

Unlike most of the other arms of the luxury trade, art investments have always been a roller-coaster ride for investors. High acquisition, maintenance costs and unsteady demand have prompted several wealthy investors to stick to havens such as gold and property.

All of that seems to be changing now, it seems, judging by the steady stream of Chinese buyers thronging the flea markets, antique shops and high-end auction houses of Paris, London and various other European art markets. The buying patterns are also varied, ranging from imperial porcelain vases, bronze Buddha statues, traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy and, in some cases, masterpieces by renowned artists.

The robust demand also indicates that demand for art investment has not waned in China, experts say, although the Chinese art market suffered an unexpected sales contraction last year.

"We have seen the number of Chinese clients double over the past year. More than 90 percent of the visitors at the pre-auction exhibitions of Asian art are from Asia," says Isabelle Bresset, associate director at Artcurial, a leading French auction house.

Bresset and other experts feel that part of the reason why wealthy Chinese investors are now making most of their purchases in markets such as Europe and the US is because of the widespread counterfeits and rampant market manipulations in China's art market.

However, some experts feel the uncertain financial conditions in Europe and other developed markets offer an excellent opportunity for Chinese investors to find good bargains at reasonable prices. The real benefit, experts say, is the safety and authenticity that mature art markets such as Europe can provide to investors.

Yet another benefit of the Chinese demand is the growing trade in Asian artwork and antiques across Europe, as seen in the increasing number of galleries and studios offering Asian collections for sale.

"The steady growth of the Asian art market is perhaps one of the most important trends in the global art market during the past decade," says Catherine Delvaux, head of communication services at French auction house Drouot. "Everyone in the market, including auctioneers, dealers and fair organizers, is interested in touching base with wealthy Chinese collectors."

The growing presence of Chinese buyers in the European art market has also inflated prices for Asian artwork prices across Europe, particularly for Chinese art, because most of the collectors are focused on products from China, experts say.

"The growing demand for Chinese art has resulted in sharp price spikes," says Titia Vellenga, the representative of the European Fine Art Fair, an annual event in the Netherlands that brings together arts and antiques from several countries.

In France alone, the total sales of Asian art exceeded 200 million euros last year, accounting for 24 percent of the sales in the French art market, according to figures provided by Conseil des Ventes, the French auction regulatory authority.

Chinese art pieces have also become the top sellers at major auctions in Europe because of their ability to fetch jaw-dropping prices. In 2011, an 18th century Chinese silk scroll painting from the Qianlong period of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was sold to an unnamed Chinese bidder for $31 million, which set the record for Chinese art at French auction houses.

An imperial album known as Zhigongtu in Chinese from the same period fetched $10.6 million last year in France and was bought by an unnamed Chinese collector.

"Sometimes it can be difficult for us to fully understand the size of the country and the potential of the Chinese buyers. It is simply beyond imagination. The prices at the auctions are often exceptional," Bresset from Artcurial says.

Leila de Vos, the European head of Chinese works of art at London-based global auction house Christie's, says that Chinese spending has grown more than 250 percent in the past five years.

"The more people are active in our sales, wherever they are from, the more competition there is for each lot. And this in turn leads to the lots going for higher prices," she says.

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