For years, Mao repressed China’s ability to develop a culture that appreciated aesthetics. Now his influence on art has been reduced to the portrait Andy Warhol completed of him, which sold to Chinese real estate billionaire, Joseph Lau, for $1.73 million in 2006.
The transaction is no ironic coincidence. François Curiel, president of Christie’s Asia, believes members of the Chinese upper class are using art as a way to interact with international business executives. “They see works of art on their walls,” Curiel says, “and think, ‘If I want to be not just a millionaire but someone who plays with the big boys, I’d better be someone who collects art.’”
The result is a growing obsession with art auctions in China. Top galleries from around the world, like White Cube, Ben Brown Fine Arts, and the Gagosian Gallery, have all opened up branch offices in the country that boasts the most billionaires according to Hurun Rich List 2010. Artprice, which tracks the fine-art market, reports that Chinese auction houses are showing sales records that beat out London and New York. Artprice also says that the number of Chinese billionaires is expected to increase 20 percent each year through 2014, suggesting the demand for art won’t dry up any time soon.
The rush to buy may be, in part, a desire to make up for lost time. “In China, for 50 or 60 years, nothing happened,” says Vishakha N. Desai, the president of Asia Society. “That’s a big break. The last 250 years were years of humiliation. They now feel an obligation to prize art again and bring it back.”
“They have an interest in reclaiming their culture and history,” says Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby’s vice chairman for Asian art, “These are successful business people with huge amounts of money at their disposal.”
Chinese collectors are also interested in branching out, too. “They are present in all our salesrooms now,” Curiel says. “You’re beginning to see Chinese collectors in the world of Impressionists and 20th-century decorative art. Possibly with the exception of European old masters, we see China in every center.”
At Sotheby’s spring sale, a Chinese buyer purchased Picasso’s “Femme Lisant (Deux Personnages)” — for $21.3 million, the evening’s priciest painting. An anonymous buyer, believed to be Chinese, also bought Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” at Christie’s last year for $106.5 million.
Sales are also up for Chinese artists. A scroll painting from the Imperial Palace in Beijing fetched $31 million from a Chinese buyer at the auction house Lebarbe in Toulouse, France. Zhang Xiaogang’s “Forever Lasting Love” triptych sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for more than $10 million in April.
Lawrence Chu, a Hong Kong-based collector who runs BlackPine Private Equity Partners, says, “Chinese buyers are now recognized in the art world and auction world as the most important area of business development.”
photo credit: sotheby’s, lebarbe