In recent years there have been numerous examples of the tenacity with which Chinese buyers track down outstanding examples of their heritage in small auction rooms around the world. That Bordeaux result had echoes of the €22.1 million, bid in Toulouse in 2011 for a Qianlong-era scroll painting or the even more extraordinary $83 million bid, but never paid, for a similar period vase at a 2010 auction in Ruislip in West London.
More recently, President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption and the slowing of China’s economy have cooled demand, particularly for more routine objects that have been restored or overvalued.
And yet Chinese decorative art and antiques was one of the few auction sectors that grew in 2015, according to the Netherlands-based European Fine Art Foundation, or Tefaf, whose annual art market report was published on March 9. Auctions of Chinese porcelain, jades, furniture and other antiques fractionally increased year-on-year from $2.1 billion in 2014 to $2.2 billion. Though this is still far below the heights of the $3.4 billion generated in 2011, the sector nonetheless “performed significantly better in terms of annual growth than fine art in China and many other countries,” the report says.
The strengths and weaknesses of the market for historic Chinese art were evident this month at the annual Asia Week New York promotion, which ran from March 10 to 19.
The event, whose eighth edition featured 45 galleries and five auction houses, achieved a total of $130 million in sales, the organizers said. Last year, Asia Week raised $360 million, thanks to a $131.7 million boost from Christie’s blockbuster sale of the collection of the dealer Robert Hatfield Ellsworth. Perhaps more significantly, this year’s total was also well down from the $200 million the event achieved in 2014.
The seizure by federal officials of more than half a dozen Southeast Asian artifacts from the promotion, which the authorities said had been looted, generated some unhelpful publicity , but plenty of Chinese buyers did fly to New York for the event, and dealers and auction houses made sales.
“Mainland Chinese are in a more cautious and selective mood now,” said James Lally, a participating New York dealer, whose exhibition of ancient Chinese jades nonetheless found buyers for 62 out of its 75 pieces, ranging in price from $5,000 to $500,000. “Yet China is creating new collectors every day, and when a mainland Chinese begins collecting, he always collects Chinese art.” He added that about 40 percent of the sales at his show went to buyers from greater China.
The Tefaf report calculates that 82 percent of the value of last year’s auction sales of Chinese decorative arts and antiques took place in China. That percentage is set to rise in 2016 as Western sellers increasingly choose to offer their finest pieces in Hong Kong rather than New York or London. Descendants of the mid-20th century British collector Roger Pilkington, for example, have chosen to sell all 100 lots of his Chinese ceramics on April 6 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. The auction is estimated to raise at least $29 million.
Wealthy Westerners, if they do buy Chinese art, now tend to buy the art of today. Many are banking on it being a lucrative investment once China produces its hoped-for boom in contemporary art collecting.
The world’s museums continue, by and large, to regard the best Chinese Neolithic jades, Tang dynasty pottery figures and Ming dynasty bronzes as among the timeless achievements of human civilization.
And the new wealth of China still values this heritage and is prepared to pay for it.
“The future of the market for Chinese art is exceptionally strong,” said Mr. Berwald, the London antiques dealer. “But that future is in China.”
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