BEIJING – Auction results over the last decade would seem to indicate a ravenous appetite for art by the Chinese. In 2007, China accounted for 9 percent of the global art market. By 2013, that figure had risen to 25 percent, or one quarter of worldwide dollar transactions. But experts say those statistics are just the beginning of the rise.

The seven-sale series of Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art in Hong Kong on 8 April 2014 achieved a combined total of HK$934.9 million / US$119.9 million, with the Meiyintang “Chicken Cup” selling for HK$281.24 million / US$36.05 million setting a world auction record for any Chinese porcelain. 

Maturing collectors, a spate of new museum openings on the Chinese mainland and currently low-penetration of actual art buyers in China sets a stage for rapid development in art appreciation. 

“We still believe that China is in the early stages of growth compared to mature markets like Europe or the USA,” says Larry Zhu, COO for Sotheby’s Asia. While recent sales of Chinese contemporary at auction have set record highs – at Sotheby's Beijing Art Week in December 2013, six Chinese contemporary artists achieved record sales – these works are traditionally collected by a select group of art lovers for private use. That’s poised for change, says Zhu. 

Sotheby's Beijing Art Week set a record for Chinese modern master Zao Wou-Ki when  Abstraction, from The Collection of The Art Institute of Chicago, sold for RMB89,680,000 / US$14,718,771 (Est. RMB35 – 45 million). Artist records were also set for Li Guijun, Chen Fei, Duan Jianwei, Liu Renjie and Ma Ke. 

Portrait of the Artist and its Collector

This May, Sotheby’s Beijing will hold its second Spring Sale and Selling Exhibition, which is accompanied by a full programme of educational events. The series of talks and lectures, designed in partnership with Sotheby’s Institute of Art, targets an increasingly diversifying emergent market. 

Zao Wou-ki, Sous Bois Dans La Nuit, 1955. Estimate RMB 16,000,000–24,000,000. To be offered at Sotheby's Beijing's Modern and Contemporary Art sale on 1 June.

One of the talks, entitled 20th Century Chinese Art Masters: Sanyu, Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun – Life, Works, and Impact on China's Art History, complements the Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art sale that leads the Spring Sales. The three gallery walks, Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art, Masters on Paper – From Picasso to Sanyu, and Chinese Realist Paintings, offer detailed insights into the artists in each sale and their works, and cater to both seasoned collectors and a generation newly interested in art. Sotheby’s is proud to extend its outreach to the public through such exhibitions and programmes.

Art education will play a fundamental role in the market’s future development, Zhu says. Mainland sales bring previously unavailable and prestigious works to China while additional educational events aim to deepen knowledge about these works, while also informing the market. 

The Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing, designed by American architect Steven Holl. Courtesy of the Sifang Art Museum.

New Tastemakers

The last five years have seen a boom in museums opening on the Chinese Mainland – at a speed some have said is comparable only to New York during the late 19th and 20th centuries. With this comes demand from new institutional collectors with changing tastes. 

“For a certain area in time, realism was very strong, but will this be a hot topic in 10 years? I’m keen to know,” says Zhu. 

While interest in that genre is still high, an accompanying exhibition of Chinese Realist Paintings by some of the category’s biggest names, including Chen Yifei, Zhan Jianjun, Ai Xuan and Wang Yidong, will be presented alongside the sales and education series. 

Another central event in the series will be a panel discussion called Building a Private Collection in China. Suited to institutional and private collectors, panel members Professor Zhang Gan, Vice Dean of Tsinghua University’s Academy of Art and Design, Yue Luping, a well-known curator and critic of Chinese Contemporary and Jonathan Wong, a senior specialist of Chinese Contemporary with Sotheby’s Asia will analyse current trends and forecast new ones, and will discuss how exponential growth in the market has and will continue to influence global art markets.

Sotheby's is proud to partner with Beijing’s Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious and influential academic institutions.

A Look West

Market tastes are already moving beyond Chinese works. In the last five years seasoned collectors intent on expanding their collections have begun to bid on Western masters. Names like Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh have high recognition among the Chinese, who began to accept Western fine artists, their philosophies and techniques almost a century ago, says Zhu. 

What’s changed, however, is access to them. 

“It’s only in the last 20 or so years that people have been able to physically see these pieces, and thought to themselves, I can own that,’” says Zhu. “Collecting this kind of work has just begun,” he says. 

Masters commanding huge prices are not the only pieces attracting attention. Interest in pieces with more approachable price points signifies interest from new buyers. The Spring Sale also includes a selling exhibition of French drawings and prints on paper by artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Miró and Sanyu. A lecture by Mary Bartow, head of Sotheby’s New York’s Prints Department, will guide attendees in assessing the aesthetic value of printed works, as well as trends in collecting those pieces.

Zhu himself will take part in another lecture called Overview of the China Art Market, alongside Kevin Ching, CEO of Sotheby’s Asia. Together they will address the current market in China and its future developments. Events have been tailored to give “an insider’s view,” Zhu says. “We want to emphasise that when someone buys a piece of art, what they are buying does not stand alone. What they are buying is a piece of art history.”

Learn more about Sotheby’s Beijing Spring Sale and Selling Exhibitions.