Mainland buyers emerged as the big spenders at the November auctions of pre-modern Chinese art in London, making their presence felt on terrain once dominated by wealthy, urbane Britons.
The three major auction houses – Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams – each reported a marked increased in sales to mainland Chinese, setting impressive new prices for works sourced from private British collections. Several lots beat their estimates by as much as 10 times. Rising affluence, a taste for competitive consumption and an enthusiasm for repatriating national treasures are driving the market.
“In the middle-market price level of about £20,000-100,000 (US$33,200-166,400), there were far more mainland bidders and buyers than I can ever remember before, bidding very aggressively,” Colin Sheaf, Bonhams deputy chairman and head of Asian art, told China Economic Review.
At Bonhams’ November 5 auction, Lot 3 set the tone for the proceedings: a Shang Dynasty bronze ritual wine vessel with an estimate of US$33,200-50,000 achieved a final sale price of US$629,700. It was followed by Lot 8, a bronze inscribed ritual food vessel, which sold for US$816,100 against an upper estimate of US$99,800, and an imperial white jade “double dragon” seal used by the Guangxu Emperor, which sold for US$846,200 against an upper estimate of US$249,600.
The star of the evening sale was a lustrous Ming jar decorated with goldfish, created during the reign of Emporer Jiajing (1522-66). Bought by a private English collector in 1935 for £55, it was put to auction with an upper estimate of US$415,900 and sold after furious bidding for US$1.83 million.
“Of those big ticket items, almost all were bought by ethnic Chinese but only a couple of the top lots clearly went back to China,” said Sheaf. “Though it’s often hard to tell if a Hong Kong dealer is buying for a mainland collector, we did notice many more condition report requests from mainland clients.”
At Christie’s November 3 auction, prices realized for key pieces were just as spectacular. The prize lot – a rare enameled model of a Buddhist Stupa from the Qianlong period (1736-95) – sold for US$381,000, blitzing an upper estimate of US$133,000. Nine out of the 10 most expensive works went to Asian bidders.
Since the onset of the financial crisis, auction houses have been nurturing Chinese buyers in the hope to dispel the hand wringing from London’s jaded salesrooms and offset flagging interest in Chinese classical art among traditional English collectors.
Sotheby’s and Christie’s each sent more than 200 official invitations to mainland dealers and collectors to help them get travel permits to attend the London Asian Art Festival. This series of auctions and dealer shows offered some of the best examples of Chinese art from early 20th British collections – a period during which many English connoisseurs took advantage of the breakdown in Chinese imperial government to acquire artworks from export traders in Shanghai and Beijing.
The quality of work on offer this month proved that a healthy trade in Chinese pre-modern art and objects is still moving through London.
While the commercial prowess of UK auction houses might draw Chinese collectors halfway across the globe for now, there is little doubt pressure will grow for Sotheby’s, Christies and Bonhams to offer their better work through their Hong Kong salesrooms.
The trend towards Asian sales is already guiding commercial decisions in other luxury departments. For Sotheby’s, Hong Kong has long overtaken Geneva as the centre of its jewelry trade. And despite sharp contractions in auction prices in 2009, Contemporary Chinese art is still trading at levels unthinkable as recently as 2005.
In 2010, it may well be the remaining English collectors jetting to Asia to scrutinize potential acquisitions. But wherever the auctions are held, proceedings are likely to be dominated by a new breed of excitable mainland collectors willing to far outbid the room to get what they want.