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September 28, 2012 8:51 pm
In the distant days of 2006, it was startling to discover that the buyer of Andy Warhol’s portrait of Chairman Mao for the then record price of $17.4m was a Hong Kong property developer. Until then it had been assumed that most collectors in the region were only interested in their national heritage. How times have changed. This summer at Christie’s London, for instance, a Chinese bidder paid £8m for a Rembrandt, and Asian buyers also secured Old Masters by less famous figures such as Balthasar van der Ast and Adriaen Coorte.
It seemed even more improbable six years ago that Asian buyers would acquire a taste for western decorative arts. Yet the region has proved a growing force in this market too, not least for silver and clocks – in 2010 a monumental 18th-century English silver wine cooler was knocked down to another Hong Kong bidder for over £2m at Sotheby’s London.
On September 27, Sotheby’s was allowed to offer a single work at auction in China, pending a joint venture agreement with the state-owned Beijing GeHua Art Company. It was a significant moment: foreign auction houses are not allowed to operate independently on the Chinese mainland. Now it is organising its first offering of western furniture and other decorative arts in Asia, a selling exhibition in Hong Kong (November 8-16). Sotheby’s Patti Wong sees the exhibition as catering to “the diversifying taste of Asian collectors expanding beyond traditional Asian arts.”
The show features 19th-century and predominantly French or English works – grandiose furniture in the style of Louis XVI, showy gilt-bronze and Sèvres-mounted clocks, and George IV silver-gilt candelabra, the kind of works already tried and tested on the Asian market. Prices range from $30,000 to $1m.
Western decorative arts have featured at the international Hong Kong fair, Fine Art Asia, since 2009. Next week’s seventh edition (October 4-7) now introduces 20th-century design furniture, courtesy of Turin’s Novalis Contemporary Art @Design, exhibiting Italian classics by the likes of Giò Ponti and Ettore Sottsass.
“My generation of well-educated people in their 40s want an international living style,” explains fair director Andy Hei, a specialist in Chinese antique furniture.
The fair hosts silver dealers Koopman Rare Arts, European bronze sculpture specialists Robert Bowman and Pierre Dumonteil, and newcomer Lillian Nassau, the doyenne of Tiffany glass. It is a testimony to the seriousness with which Koopman’s Lewis Smith views this burgeoning market that he is bringing $12m of museum-quality silver to the fair, although he expects to sell just 10-20 per cent of it. “This is a culture that understands the ‘old’, and high-value objects in precious materials,” he says. “They also realise that the market for Chinese works is overheated and overpriced, and that a lot of these objects are wildly undervalued.” His most expensive sale at last year’s event was £300,000. “I would not consider bringing a £1m piece here yet,” he says. “This is all about education.”
Interest in the field is not restricted to the English-educated elite: European decorative arts appeal to China’s aspirational middle class too. Furniture and silver have been offered on the mainland by Poly Auctions and China Guardian for four or five years, and by dealers in Beijing and Shanghai. The Danish auction-house Bruun Rasmussen has also seen success in the region with its online auctions of European furniture.
It is the potential of this broadening interest, broader adoption of the internet and growing discretionary spending in China that is exciting Stephan Ludwig, chairman of Dreweatts and Bloomsbury Auctions, the UK’s fourth largest auction group. His focus is on works under £10,000, and lower-value items well under the radar of the larger auction houses. In August he teamed up with EpaiLive, China’s only dedicated fine art auctions and live bidding portal, and on September 4 Dreweatts achieved the first ever sale of an international object sold on a Chinese portal to a Chinese buyer.
This relatively humble first was a French gilt-metal portable clock of around 1900 which sold for £675 with premium. Some 20 per cent of this clock sale drew Chinese bidding, with eight out of the 108 lots secured by the Chinese: the top price was £3,000.
EpaiLive was founded in Beijing in October by Oxford graduate Dr QiQi Jiang, and is backed by the Chinese aeronautical corporation AVIC. Government officials hope it may bring greater transparency to a market plagued by problems of fakes and non-payment. Since November it has offered a platform for any catalogue placed on the international the-saleroom.com site. The crucial difference between working directly with the Chinese portal, rather than being redirected through the-saleroom.com, is that the dialogue between the auctioneer and EpaiLive is in English, that between EpaiLive and the client, in Chinese. Its unique payment service through the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China offers payment surety and facilitates large exchanges of RMB into international currency.
“I am gob-smacked by the simplicity of it, and astounded no one had done it before,” enthuses Ludwig. “I have never been more excited about anything in business, even during my 15 years as an investment banker.” With Christopher Ewbank, a former chairman of the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers, he is establishing an association of 20 British regional auctioneers to promote the industry’s visibility in China. Several will be exhibiting at the Beijing International Antique Fair, November 16-18.
Says Dr QiQi Jiang: “The press is full of stories regarding the likely global impact from the mobilisation of China’s new middle-class wealth. The reality, to date, has been that much of this demand can be satisfied from domestic production. Antiques are different; the cachet of owning a ‘piece of international history’ is becoming a more commonplace and an integral part of satisfying this appetite is by purchasing directly from abroad.”
China’s middle class is already larger than the entire population of the United States, and the number should approach 1bn in the next 15 years. Ludwig sees expansion into the Chinese market as “revolutionising the fortunes of the middle market”. He adds: “If the Chinese start importing European antiques by the container-load in the same way that Americans did in the 1970s and ‘80s, then even brown furniture might begin to go up in value.”
The highlights of Frieze season
Pavilion of Art & Design London
Berkeley Square, London
A fixture in the decorative arts calendar, PAD 2012 draws 60 art and design exhibitors from Europe, Asia, and North America into an eclectic boutique display in Berkeley Square.
Regents Park, London
London’s premier art fair takes to Regent’s Park each autumn, this year showcasing over 1,000 of the world’s leading artists. A stylish environment for buying and browsing is complemented by Frieze Projects, a broad range of lectures, debates, and panel discussions.
Regent’s Park, London
2012 sees the inauguration of Frieze Masters, a new partner fair to Frieze London presenting art created between the ancient era and the twentieth century in Annabelle Selldorf’s bespoke temporary structure.
Moniker Art Fair
A short commute from Frieze fairs, Moniker showcases London’s urban art niche. This year’s highlights include Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada’s manipulations of ancient wall surfaces and Mark McClure’s Rauschenberg-inspired street sculpture.
Ambika P3, London
Cutting edge international galleries can make their debuts at this intimate underground fair. This October Milan’s Fluxia presents Luca Francesconi’s delicate copper arrangements, and Rolf Nowotny’s suggestive geometric constructions represent Berlin’s Christian Andersen Gallery.
Multiplied Art Fair
Multiplied is the only UK Art Fair devoted solely to contemporary art in editions for a broad spectrum of budgets.
Grand Palais, Paris
France’s leading contemporary fair boasts a cohort of 180 international contributors, this year presenting its newest additions from Denmark, Poland, Romania, and the United Arab Emirates.
Verona Fiere, Verona
In addition to its impressive collection of Italian works for sale, Art Verona promises a large photography exhibition and networking exercises for young arts professionals.
Postal Palace, Munich
The fifty-seventh of its kind and Germany’s oldest art fair, the encyclopaedic Kunst-Messe München sells art from Classical to Post-Modern periods in the enormous Postal Palace.
Affordable Art Fair
Battersea Park, London
Hosting over 100 exhibitors from leading contemporary galleries, The Affordable Art Fair prides itself on a low-key atmosphere suited to both first time and experienced buyers.
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