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  • Chinese buyers fuel auction house boom
    August 18, 2005 by Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent.

    Dragon economy: a Qing dynasty blue and white dragon vase which sold for $1.6m at Sotheby's. Photograph: Robert Ng/Reuters.

    First there was the vase that fetched ?15.6m at Christie's last month, the most expensive Asian artefact in history. Then there was another 14th-century Yuan dynasty pot, kept on a shelf for years in its owners' dog room, which fetched ?3m at auction in Salisbury, six times the record for anything sold at a British provincial auction.

    Now if anyone doubts that the Chinese art market is exploding, Christie's has attributed its record sales of ?910m for the first six months of 2005 to the emergence of Chinese buyers keen to buy back their cultural heritage.

    Asian art accounted for ?71.3m of Christie's sales between January and June, far short of the ?232.3m spent on impressionist and modern art but outstripping the ?38.5m spent on old masters.

    Christie's cannot say precisely how many mainland Chinese buyers have snapped up ceramics or ink paintings at its sales. But Ed Dolan, the company's chief executive, said the "growing participation of buyers from mainland China, alongside the growing number of collectors throughout Asia" had contributed "a significant part" to the bumper figures.

    Giuseppe Eskenazi, the London-based dealer who successfully bid for the ?15.6m Yuan vase, warned against exaggerating the numbers of mainland buyers. He said the five people still in the bidding for the vase above ?10m, including his client, were all western, or western or Taiwan-based expatriate Chinese. But according to Mr Dolan, "there were several Chinese clients bidding up to the region of ?10m, serious contenders if not ultimate buyers".

    According to Mr Eskenazi, American and Swiss collectors still dominate the bidding for the most expensive items, with Chinese collectors buying "at mid-level".

    "A lot of Chinese are buying works as investments," he said. "They haven't got the sophistication at the top level."

    But the rise of the Chinese mainland market - exaggerated as it may have been - is becoming important, as the Chinese economy booms and its ranks of millionaires grow.

    Ceramics and other artworks are seen as a useful addition to investment portfolios given an unstable stock market. There is also an element of patriotic repatriation, of gathering back the antiquities that streamed out of China as the Qing dynasty crumbled and the country was engulfed by revolution.

    China is also seeing its contemporary art, which has hitherto sold to an almost entirely foreign clientele, start to gain a domestic market.

    Chinese contemporary art has become hot in Europe and the US over the past five years and the appearance of the first Chinese pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale confirmed the acceptance of China as a player in the contemporary art world.

    According to Lorenz Hebling, a Swiss dealer who set up a gallery in Shanghai in 1996, native Chinese buyers are gradually emerging - "creative people who are close to the artist, or people who spend a lot of energy finding out what is going on". He said Chinese collectors "want to keep [the art] in China", and paintings were "still the main thing" although installations and video works, in which Chinese artists are particularly active, were also being sold.

    In addition to that 100 state-run and private museums in Shanghai alone are expected to be built in the decade following the city's World Fair in 2010. Observers expect about 1,000 museums to be built in China as a whole by 2015.

    Chang Yungho, a Beijing-based architect, said during an event at Art Basel, a contemporary art fair, that he was working on a museum town: 25 museums, along with commercial and residential spaces, south of Anren in Sichuan province.

    The museum-building spree is largely spearheaded by property developers, and with only a limited vision of the art they might house. Huo Hanru, a Paris-based Chinese expatriate curator, said at Art Basel: "Very often the museums being built have basically no programme, and the programme comes usually three months before the event happens, very often because of people coming with money and power saying 'I want to rent the space'."

    The majority of the museums will be filled by temporary exhibitions so there will not be a buying spree for permanent collections.

    Even so, the rise of a culture of museums and galleries in China is likely to boost the domestic art market.

    The London-based gallery Haunch of Venison is planning to open outposts in Shanghai and Beijing, hoping to sell both western and Chinese art to Chinese clients.

    Harry Blain, the director of the gallery, said it was responding to a "real thirst" for contemporary western art in China.

    "There are some very encouraging signs and an enormous enthusiasm," he said. "We hope that will translate into the emergence of new collectors."