To China, or not?

December 18 2013

There are two interesting stories in this week's Antiques Trade Gazette on Chinese demand for Old Masters and western antiques. The first is a claim by Sotheby's that more and more bids are coming from China for non-Chinese art:

Key findings from Sotheby's show that in the last three years the number of bidders from mainland China active in sectors other than Chinese art has increased by 54%. Over this period, 660 bidders from mainland China competed for more than 7800 lots in these 'non-Chinese' sectors, spending a total of $378m (£241m).

Chairman of Sotheby's Asia Patti Wong told ATG: "Over the last ten years we have seen a constant growth of Asian buyers buying abroad, but in the last five years, and especially the last three, we've seen a real increase coming out of mainland China in particular."

660 bidders in three years (from a population of over 1.3 billion) does not a stampede make. But it's an encouraging start. Obviously, everyone in the trade dreams of wealthy Chinese clients suddenly developing a passion for old western art. It's yet to happen in a big way, but it might, and certainly there are stories of the odd Rembrandt being sent to China. At the other end of the scale, I was recently in a minor Scottish auction room buying antique furniture,* and heard of a number of phone bids from China (and why not, 'brown furniture' is so cheap these days they're practically giving it away).

The second story, however, might appear to suggest that the demand isn't yet there in China, as TEFAF Maastricht's plan to open a satellite fair in Beijing has been scrapped. This project was a joint venture with Sotheby's. However, I hear it's that element of the venture which caused concern, especially amongst potentially participating dealers, rather than any feeling that no Chinese punters would turn up. Sotheby's were insisting that all sales made at the fair go through them, with a commission payable. Hardly an incentive for independent dealers whose biggest competition is the auction houses.

*long story...

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