Nouveau riche Chinese driving record art market

The booming market for Chinese art shows no sign of slowing down, according to Bonhams’ Hong Kong-based specialist John Chong. He is in Australia this week providing valuations in Sydney and Melbourne alongside Graeme Thompson, director of jewellery in Asia, and watch specialist Nicholas Biebuyck ahead of Bonhams’ next round of auctions in Hong Kong.1439359770845

They’re here in search of gems to offer a seemingly insatiable market for historical Chinese art. And while pieces can pop up from anywhere, Chong says many of the best collections of Chinese art come from “reputable families with rich historical backgrounds which have migrated to Australia in the early 20th century”.

While the biannual valuation visits are essentially a marketing exercise and part of Bonhams’ Asian expansion plans, there’s no denying that the local market for Chinese art has delivered some strong results at recent sales. In June last year, a blue and white porcelain dragon box sold for $146,400 with Bonhams – or 146 times its lower estimate. At a Mossgreen sale last month, another blue and white porcelain went for $20,740 on an estimate of $2,000 to $3,000. These sale prices include a 22 per cent buyer’s premium while estimates do not.

Chong says these results are nothing compared with what’s been happening in recent Hong Kong sales. “Obviously Hong Kong is the centre of the art market here in Asia,” he says, pointing to its proximity for Chinese buyers who make up the majority of the market. It means the best pieces are typically consigned to the Hong Kong sales and accordingly, the results are higher. In November last year, a blue and white garlic mouth vase which went for HK$76.3 million [AUD $11.5 million] on an estimate of HK$6 million [AUD $905,404]. He also points to exceptional results for Chinese snuff bottles.
A Chinese blue-and-white ‘dragon’ box and cover, with Wanli six-character mark on the base, sold for $146,400 at Bonhams on an estimate of $1000-$2000.
A Chinese blue-and-white ‘dragon’ box and cover, with Wanli six-character mark on the base, sold for $146,400 at Bonhams on an estimate of $1000-$2000. Supplied

He cites the usual factors that affect results at auction: an object’s quality, rarity, provenance and prior appearances on the market, as well as the general health of the economy.
Nouveau riche Chinese

But there are other reasons for the stratospheric results seen in the Chinese art market, including the growth of the collector base. “It’s actually growing quite exponentially,” says Chong. “You’re seeing more world records being broken in the past five to 10 years than in the past 50 years.”

“It has a lot to do with the opening and the booming of the Chinese art market. You have a lot of nouveau riche buyers willing to relate themselves to such luxuries, not just art, but maybe watches, jewellery, a car, or houses.”

There is also an element of wanting to connect with history. “For Chinese antiques, it’s a part of Chinese heritage, part of our tradition,” he says.

The history effect has been amplified by the Chinese government, which Chong says “has taken a considerably firm stance in protecting and preserving their cultural heritage and national treasures in the recent decade. This has raised public awareness internationally on the importance and appreciation of Chinese cultural relics, resulting in a positive impact on the global perception of these valuable vestiges.”

The Chinese art market is also very broad, he notes, covering not only artworks such as blockprints, watercolours and oils but also antiques from jades, to bronzes, cloisonnés, porcelains and buddhas. “There are collectors in every different category.”

“In every different category and period of Chinese history there are different buyers who are interested in it, which is why the Chinese art market is very buoyant, because you’re not just banking on the same few rich buyers buying the same few top lots every time.”

Chong sees no signs that the market will soften. “The economy has been suffering its ups and downs for the past 15 years but the Chinese art market has always been growing and has resisted these crises… I only see good things to come for Chinese art.”

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