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- 14 Jan 2011
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Modern Western Art in China, Still in the Education Stage

Felice Jiang of Jing Daily discusses the contemporary art climate in mainland China and reveals that artists like Picasso may be a taste not yet acquired by the Chinese

Last summer, Xinhua reported on mainland China’s billionaire art collectors poised to take the international art market by storm, after an anonymous telephone bidder, believed to be Chinese, purchased a Pablo Picasso work at Christie’s for a record-breaking $106.4 million dollars. The article quoted Ken Yeh, chairman of Christie’s Asia in Hong Kong, as saying: “Chinese mainland buyers have only just started buying impressionist works so there is a lot of potential for this to go a lot further than it already has.”


Picasso – Nude, Green Leaves and Bust was sold by Christie’s for $106.4 million, believed to be a Chinese collector

In the same article, Mei Jianping, professor of finance at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing and co-creator of the Mei Moses Fine Art Price Index, compared the nascent trend to the Japanese spending spree during the late 1980s, which helped fuel an increase of more than 200 percent in the Impressionist Art Index charted by Mei Moses Fine Arts. Mei contended that “we could be at the start of another spectacular impressionist boom,” powered by the desire of Chinese collectors to demonstrate their sophistication and stature as great collectors. But Ben Brown of Ben Brown Fine Art in Hong Kong and London was of the opinion that the predicted boom might be mostly hype.

Since then, mainland Chinese collectors have been making splashes at Hong Kong auctions and sales specifically targeted to this clientele. While Chinese collectors are sweeping many areas, including Chinese contemporary art, wine, and jewelry, Western impressionist and modern art has yet to emerge in any serious way on their collecting agendas. But this fall, Picasso popped up in the Asian market, in an exhibition of impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s and in Picasso-focused shows by two Western dealers, Ben Brown Fine Arts and Edouard Malingue Gallery. While these presentations have provided Chinese collectors with unprecedented opportunities to buy close to home, the overwhelming interest that may have been expected has thus far failed to materialize.


Picasso – Minotaure, 30 April 1958 (Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts)

Ben Brown Fine Arts is exhibiting 13 Picasso paintings in its Hong Kong gallery space through January 28. The Edouard Malingue Gallery Picasso show consists of 40 works, 23 of which are sketchbook illustrations. That show is currently on view in Taipei after its autumn presentation in Hong Kong. While Edouard Malingue has pointed out that some of the visitors showed an appreciation for the works, by the end of November only two of the paintings had been sold, and to European buyers. And while it hopes to sell Picassos to Asian buyers, Ben Brown Fine Arts is also expecting sales to European collectors visiting Hong Kong. A gallery spokesperson told Jing Daily that, although Ben Brown Fine Arts does not distinguish among collectors, “the top end of the Asian market for Western art is dominated by Taiwan, Korea and Indonesia,” rather than mainland China. Sales of work to mainland Chinese collectors have remained below the $100,000 level, but the gallery spokesperson feels “confident that collectors on the mainland will soon mature” and begin to recognize galleries as venues for accurately priced, quality works.

Auctions have been the venue of choice for most art-spending in China, but in the case of impressionist art, even auction houses have largely dealt through private sales, perhaps due to the uncertain reception of these types of works. In the New York Times, Misung Shim, the managing director of the Hong Kong branch of Korean auction company Seoul Auction, described the interest as growing, adding that the Chinese market for Picassos was in the “promoting and educating stage,” without strong reports of sales. Seoul Auction sold Picasso’s 1965 “Modèle dans l’Atelier” for 18.17 million HKD (2.36 million USD) in October. But while their November sale included Picassos, it was unclear how many had actually sold, because none were available for bidding, having been offered in private sales instead. Additionally, Sotheby’s held an exhibition of impressionist and 20th-century art for sale in Hong Kong, which was also previewed in Beijing. Sales results for the works by Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Dalí, Chagall and Léger were not made public because the works had not been made available at auction.

2011 Trend Watch: Artprice recently generated a new ranking for the 10 best auction results for Western art in China. While a few Western artists enjoyed considerable demand, overall the results were unimpressive. With nationalistic pride still a strong taste-making factor, Chinese collectors will continue to drive prices for Chinese art, but in all probability the Chinese market for Western art will take more time to develop. If the “greatest barrier for the market” is that Chinese collectors “are not frequently exposed to top quality Western art,” as a spokesperson for the Edouard Malingue Gallery has stated, these recent shows are a step in the right direction. Whether Chinese collectors will respond in 2011 remains in question.

This article has been published courtesy of Jing Daily where it first appeared under the headline ‘2011 Trend Watch: Chinese Collectors, Modern Western Art?’


Felice Jiang is a social media strategist at Jing Daily, an online publication that examines the intersection of luxury and culture in China, focusing on the the ins and outs of business development, with an eye toward the upscale consumer market and the business of culture.