A Chinese face or two in the crowd at the world’s auction houses often means one thing: the gavel will fall on a price far beyond the seller’s wildest dreams.
Fierce bidding by Chinese buyers for a vase at a small London auctioneer in November, for example, drove the price up nearly 40 times beyond its estimate, from around $1.9 million to $70 million.
It was the highest price ever paid for a Chinese artwork sold at auction and equivalent to a huge lottery win for the sellers, who found the 18th Century Qianlong Emperor-era piece while clearing out a house after a relative died.
The fragile porcelain vase reportedly sat perched precariously on top of a bookcase in a suburban London home for decades and had been insured by the owner for the princely sum of 800 pounds (almost $1,300).
Another 18th Century Chinese vase sold for almost $33 million at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction in October, five times more than the top estimate for the piece.
And last year was a record for rival auctioneers Christie’s.
The firm generated $5 billion in global sales, it announced on Thursday, a 53 percent increase and the industry’s highest ever sales total. Hong Kong sales doubled to $721.9 million.
Christie’s most expensive Chinese lot in 2010 was a pair of crane statues, with the four lifesize wading birds waddling off to a Hong Kong real estate tycoon for $16.7 million in December.
The auction house’s Asia president Francois Curiel says Chinese collectors who want to repatriate works of art are now a huge factor in the global market. The firm sold $882.9 million in Asian art globally.
“What we are seeing is that Chinese collectors are scanning the catalogues and the fairs worldwide,” he told AFP. “They are buying to bring back to China their treasures and great Chinese works of art.
“It will often be Chinese versus Chinese versus Chinese, with all the European and American collectors being left behind, sometimes not even being able to raise their hand at the auction.”
Curiel predicts that the market for Chinese artworks will be the same as that for European and North American works by 2015.
“I believe that we are just seeing the beginning here of the development of the art market,” he says. “There are more and more rich people. Art has become a new way of putting money away.”
The main driver behind the new arrivals in the market is simple: hundreds of thousands of Chinese people now have serious money to spend.
According to the Hurun Rich List, the Chinese equivalent of the Forbes or Sunday Times rich lists, there are now 875,000 Chinese people worth over a million US dollars. And almost 200 of these are billionaires.
But the real number is likely far higher.
“China probably now has the largest number of billionaires anywhere in the world,” says Rupert Hoogewerf, founder and compiler of the list.
“We already know of 189 US dollar billionaires in China this year, but you can safely say that we have missed at least the same again, meaning there are between 400 and 500 US dollar billionaires today.”
The average wealth on the list is $577 million, more than enough cash to dip a toe in the art market.
Chan Fo-kwong is one of the few to actually show his collection to the public — in his own museum in Hong Kong. The businessman bought much of his $128 million collection in auction houses in the US and Britain.
“These antiques originally belonged to China and it would be regretful to leave them overseas,” he told AFP, as he proudly showed off a sample of his works at a shopping mall in the city.
“And that’s why I want to bring as many pieces as I can back to their home soil.”
Hong Kong art dealer Anthony Lin, who regularly bids at auctions on behalf of wealthy clients, says buyers from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are usually collecting as an investment.
“Patriotism is one popularly stated reason,” he told AFP. “But investment is probably the more pronounced objective.
“There are limited opportunities in the PRC — the stock market and property sector are volatile areas. There are no commodity markets, futures or currency markets or the various funds readily available outside the PRC.”
But it is not just Chinese works that are commanding high prices thanks to the last raised hand at an auction belonging to an Asian buyer.
An anonymous telephone bidder, believed to be Chinese, paid a world record $106.5 million for Pablo Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” at a Christie’s sale in New York in May. It was expected to sell for $80 million.
“Mainland Chinese are our main buyers, not only in Hong Kong where they are about 80 percent of our buyers, but also in New York, in London, in Geneva, in Paris,” said Curiel.
“They are absolutely everywhere now when there is a piece of fine Asian contemporary art, Chinese works of art, Chinese calligraphy and even Western art.”
Art dealer Lin, who also collects himself, worries that the significant number of Chinese buyers wading into the market could one day backfire.
“The steep rise in prices is creating a serious bubble, and should there be a serious credit crunch or international crisis, consequences could be quite severe,” he said.
Most works disappear into a rich man’s home and are never put on public display, while many are locked away and left to appreciate in the dark.
“A great deal of building of grand private homes is going on — so more decorative works are showcased,” said Lin.
“But works of very high value tend to be kept away. They are assets of the rarest kind, mostly unique and irreplaceable.”
The ballooning demand in China is also a double-edged sword for the Western collector, says Curiel.
“On one hand they are complaining they can’t buy anymore but on the other hand they are also selling objects at extremely high prices they never would have dreamed of just three or four years ago,” he said.
“So, it’s a bit of love and hate. But, at the moment, I think it’s more love than hate.”