Chinese collectors no longer follow cues from West, says Wall Street Journal


How are wealthy Chinese collectors making an impact on the market? A report published in The Wall Street Journal in October 2011 identifies new trends set by Chinese collectors and reveals how the auction market is responding to this new demand.

Who is buying contemporary art today?

According to The Wall Street Journal, collecting art was considered a “bourgeois” activity in China and was purged during the Cultural Revolution of the Sixties and Seventies. Today, fuelled by China’s strong economic growth over the past three decades, wealthy Chinese businessmen are among the art world’s most powerful collectors.

What Chinese collectors are buying and why

Instead of following the trends and prices set by European and American auction houses, dealers and collectors, buyers from China acquire works of art in an effort to reacquaint themselves with their historical and cultural identity. This penchant for the past has been clearly demonstrated in the aggressive bidding wars over “national treasures” in recent auctions.

In March 2011, an 18th century Chinese scroll painting was sold to a Chinese collector at $31 million at an auction in Toulouse, France. Image taken from

In March 2011, an 18th century Chinese scroll painting was sold to a Chinese collector at $31 million at an auction in Toulouse, France.

Click here to read the article, titled “The China Factor”, in its entirety on The Wall Street Journal website.

Old versus young collectors

Traditional Chinese pieces are usually acquired by older Chinese collectors. A few of these buyers have also been snapping up work by “blue-chip” Western artists like Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso at international art auctions. In contrast, young Chinese collectors are largely spending their money on modern and contemporary art created by Asian artists.

In May 2011, a Chinese bidder paid $21.3 million for Picasso’s “Femmes lisant (deux personnages)” at Sotheby’s. Image taken from

In May 2011, a Chinese bidder paid $21.3 million for Picasso’s “Femmes lisant (deux personnages)” at Sotheby’s. Image from

These wealthy Chinese are often responsible for setting new records at auctions and the strength of the immutable Chinese collector is now well recognised in the art world. The Wall Street Journal quoted Joe Lin-Hill, an emerging-markets professor at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, as predicting that “someday soon a Chinese ink painting is going to outsell Picasso.”

Opportunity for new collectors: photography

For those new to collecting Chinese contemporary art, it is not too late to dive in to this recently emerged art market. A lower-priced alternative, as recommended in the article by New York collector Larry Warsh, is photography. Prominent artists working in this medium include Zhang Huan who captured his 1990s performances in his haunting photos and painter and photographer Zhang Dali who actively engages with the rapidly changing environment in China.

Zhang Dali’s photographs of buildings in China which were about to be demolished in 1990s. Image taken from

Zhang Dali’s photographs of buildings in China in the 1990s which were in the process of being demolished.

Click here for Art Radar‘s interview with Eva Respini on contemporary Chinese photography.

Response from the market

Works that resonate with Chinese collectors do not necessarily gain the same level of popularity among Western collectors. Commenting on the rising prices being paid for 300-year-old brush-pots and ink-stones, New York art dealer James Lally states that “nobody in the West really goes for that work.”

Subject matter can also be a point of divergence, and while Wang Zhijie’s paintings of innocent girls in seductive poses are extremely popular among Chinese collectors,  Joe Lin-Hill of Sotheby’s Institute says, “the Chinese go nuts for this stuff; we don’t”.

Wang Zhijie, 'Untitled' (Little Girl Series), 2007, painting, oil, on canvas, 59in x 47in Image from

Wang Zhijie, 'Untitled' ("Little Girl Series"), 2007, painting, oil, on canvas, 59" x 47".

While it is clear that Chinese and western collectors are still very different in terms of taste, the auction market is already taking steps to cater to this new demand for Chinese art. Christie’s, for example, is hiring Chinese representatives in both New York and London to develop and manage relations with important collectors from China and Asia.

A quotation from Christie’s expert Eric Chang might offer an answer to which direction the wind is blowing:

China has the power to decide which artists it values most now, but will the West go along with it? There’s still a big cultural gap, but the West needs to start studying up.


Related Topics: art collectors, art auctions, Chinese artists

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