It is art auction season in Hong Kong, with the first of Sotheby’s twice-yearly sales starting Saturday and Chrisite’s offering kicking off towards the end of May.
As is often the case nowadays, all the talk is about Chinese contemporary art. Chinese ceramics, pottery and paintings have long been popular among Asia’s collectors but talk of Xu Beihong’s 1939 work Put Down Your Whip breaking the record for contemporary art in the region by selling for US$8.19 million is far more newsworthy.
Records are routinely smashed at these auctions. Interest from China’s expanding affluent classes and increased awareness of the China market among Western collectors are seen as being behind the rising prices.
Will this year see more of the same? Analysts at the Morgan Stanley Capital International Asia Index have their doubts, saying that the Sotheby’s event will be a test of Asian buyers’ appetite following the February stock market slump.
These are indeed volatile times but it would be foolish to underestimate the robust constitution of the Chinese contemporary art market.
The stock markets rebounded from their February malaise and are now back to record highs. Is art all that different? Perhaps not in terms of general investor sentiment.
Writing about contemporary art auctions a few months ago, I was introduced to a world in the midst of a boom phase, with rapid buying and selling as market players looked to squeeze out every drop of profit.
Everyone was keeping an eye out for the next big thing, spurred on by stories of the money being made by those in the know. With individual – and often poorly informed – investors increasingly playing a role, prices were shooting up, perhaps beyond realistic valuations.