With the fall auctions under way, Chinese collectors are bidding up their cultural heritage, setting new records nearly every week. ‘Soon a Chinese ink painting is going to outsell Picasso.’. Fueled by the country’s economic boom, Chinese patrons are now some of the art world’s most powerful collectors—and they’re placing their biggest bets on the art of their homeland. Bill Ruprecht, Sotheby’s chief executive, said the Chinese are spending about $4 billion a year on Chinese paintings world-wide. That’s more than Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales last year of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art combined.
The result: The art market is being transformed by the tastes of Chinese collectors—some of whom are willing to pay as much for a Qing vase as for a Vincent van Gogh painting. “Someday soon a Chinese ink painting is going to outsell Picasso,” said Joe Lin-Hill, an emerging-markets professor at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, a graduate school run by an affiliate of the auction house. “That’s where we’re headed.” With the fall auction season under way in New York, London and Hong Kong, records for Chinese works are being broken at a regular clip. Just this week, China dominated Sotheby’s $411 million round of Asian art sales in Hong Kong, while sales for Japanese and Korean pieces proved weaker. The priciest piece was an imperial Ming vase from the 13th century that sold for $21.6 million. Younger Chinese buyers are largely sticking to modern and contemporary Asian art. Wealthy, older buyers prefer traditional Chinese pieces like jade, but a few have also been buying up blue-chip Western artists like Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso. A Chinese bidder paid $21.3 million for Picasso’s “Women Reading” at Sotheby’s in May.
Chinese collectors may compete hardest, however, when treasures from their national landmarks turn up at auction elsewhere. In March, a Beijing collector showed up at tiny auction house Labarbe in Toulouse, France, and outbid six Asian rivals for a scroll painting that had been looted from the Forbidden City a century earlier. The winning bid: $31 million. It amounts to a sea change for the international art establishment, which in the past has watched Europeans and Americans set trends and prices for Chinese art. Now, Chinese buyers are making decisions informed by their own cultural upbringing rather than taking their cues from the West. Take the skyrocketing prices being paid for 300-year-old brush-pots and ink-stones, elements once key to China’s intelligentsia. “Nobody in the West really goes for that work,” said New York dealer James Lally. Chinese collectors do, he says, because the scholar is a legendary Chinese archetype.