China’s Appetite For Art Grows, Bank Helps Collectors Feed Their Passion

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That heady news capped a furious two-week spree in which Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips notched over $2.7 billion in combined sales, marking a 23% spurt from last year’s results. With art sales now regularly equaling or bettering pre-auction estimates and more people investing in works they fancy, who doesn’t want a piece of the action?

Nowhere is the urge to buy art more pronounced than in Asia, where Christie’s just concluded its spring auctions encompassing everything from Chinese contemporary ink paintings to vintage handbags. Robust results were again tallied, particularly in Asian 20th century and contemporary art, whose evening sale brought in more than $77 million. Two day sales accounted for another $28 million. In a reflection of Asian art’s deep appeal, all the Korean 20th century art was sold, and modern Vietnamese artists broke four sales records.

Momentum has been building.“It’s been very clear the last five years that the art market has shown unprecedented strength,” said Jonathan Stone, chairman and international head of Asian art at Christie’s Asia. “Something we’ve particularly noticed in Asia is that you have people who come into the market at a very significant level.”

Stone believes the rising number of wealthy people going to auctions, fairs, galleries and exhibitions signals a swelling appetite for art. “All of that provides a foundation to achieve the kinds of results that you’ve seen recently,” he explained.

Mainland Chinese buyers are the new heavyweight collectors. From 2010 to 2014, the number of Mainland Chinese bidding for non-Chinese art at auctions by Sotheby’s doubled and this year they spent $116 million on works by van Gogh, Monet and Picasso on May 5 alone.

With so much money flying about, concerns arise. The sea of online information can be disorienting and potentially costly. Last week it was reported that a Hong Kong businessman lost $1.1 million in a van Gogh painting scam.

Seasoned insight can therefore be valuable. One major financial services institution has seized the initiative. To date, it offers Asia-Pacific’s only full-time, in-house art specialist working for a bank.

Edie Hu, 40, is an art adviser for Citi Private Bank, which has been advising clients and offering lending for over 35 years. She is an expert in Chinese ceramics and antiques, previously working for 13 years for Sotheby’s in both New York and Hong Kong.

“The bankers felt there was a need for someone to be based here to be able to talk to their clients and engage them and to be able to help them find new clients,” said Hu of her Hong Kong-based role created last year. “A lot of people who buy art are our target-market clients.”

Hu covers all of Asia with two primary duties: to help bank clients acquire art by steering them into well-informed decisions, such as avoiding fakes, and to offer lending by using clients’ existing art collections as collateral if they wish to invest in other markets or fund other projects.

Coupled with her close ties to auction houses and dealers, Hu retains a sharp eye for gauging a collection’s value. Lending decisions are based on a careful appraisal of each work of art, from Western to Asian pieces.

Prior to Hu’s joining Citi Private Bank, her New York-based art advisory colleagues would visit Asia to meet collectors twice a year. But with auctions and sales proliferating in the region and many Western dealers opening galleries here, Asia’s growing importance in the global art scene could not be neglected. Clients’ doors are opening and relationships are cementing.

Hu describes clients as routinely enthusiastic when she views what they’ve collected. “If you engage them in talking about their passion, their projects, opening up a museum or their latest acquisition of a painting, they get really excited,” said Hu. “They really want to share that knowledge with someone that’s as interested and as excited about it as they are.”
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“There’s quite a seismic shift in that there is a move away from the kind of Chinese contemporary art that was really hot five or six years ago,” says Edie Hu. “There’s definitely a return to classical and modern art.”

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