Christie's will offer Picasso's "Tête de femme (Jacqueline)" for at least $4.8 million.
Markets around the world are looking to China to buoy their financial prospects. So are art auction houses.
After a dismal year, Sotheby's and Christie's International PLC are set to begin a major round of art auctions in London on Tuesday, and experts say Chinese collectors may emerge as the latest power players to bid up Western icons they once ignored, from Pablo Picasso to Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Auction houses are hoping the coming sales will build on a number of successful offerings— including a $48 million Raphael sold in December—that appear to indicate an art market turnaround. The coming two weeks could thus be a crucial period for re-establishing price levels that have dropped amid a global recession, dealers said.
Until recently, Asians have fixated on collecting their own cultural heritage, a focus that has steadily lifted prices for everything from Imperial porcelain vases to contemporary painters such as Zeng Fanzhi. Now, an influx of collectors from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are branching out to seek artists from the 20th century Western canon, such as Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas.
Joseph Lau, a billionaire real-estate developer from Hong Kong, is one of the bigger buyers, having paid Sotheby's $39 million for Gauguin's Tahitian bathing scene, "Te Poipoi (The Morning)," in late 2008.
Asian collectors, many of whom were educated in the West or travel there frequently, are seeking Impressionist artworks as new status symbols, said David Norman, co-chairman of Sotheby's Impressionist and modern art world-wide. They are buying colored gems and Champagne for similar reasons, he added.
Paul Cézanne's "Pichet et Fruits Sur Une Table"
"These people are already sophisticated buyers of their own work," he said, "but they've got an international outlook now, and they want the best-known names in art."
Their purchasing power was evident during the last major round of auctions in New York in November, when Asian collectors won several works, including Christie's $10.7 million Degas ballet scene, "Danseuses," and Sotheby's $8.1 million Picasso portrait, "Femme au chapeau vert."
For the coming week's round of Impressionist and modern-art sales in London, expect auction houses to market their roster of offerings to suit. On Wednesday, Sotheby's will try to sell Paul Cézanne's smoky-colored still life, "Pichet et fruits sur une table," for at least $16.1 million.
Christie's sold this Ming vase for $2.6 million in December.
Christie's, meanwhile, is offering Picasso's 1963 "Tête de femme (Jacqueline)," a blue portrait of the artist's second wife that is priced to sell for at least $4.8 million.
The auction house said it sought out the work after late period Picassos turned up in several gallery and museum surveys last year, including one at the National Gallery. A highly anticipated Picasso exhibit is also going up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this spring.
Other bidders to watch include Russian and Ukrainian collectors, many of whom slowed their art spending last year but also seem to be back and bidding up hometown favorites such as Natalia Goncharova and Sonia Delaunay.
Ms. Goncharova's red floral "Espagnole," from around 1916 is priced to sell at Christie's for at least $6.4 million.
Overall, Sotheby's and Christie's expect to bring in at least $365.3 million combined, up 56.1% from $234 million last February but down from $964 million in 2008.