This imperial-era Qianlong vase sold for $85.9 million last fall, becoming the most expensive Chinese artwork to sell at auction.
The Western art world's hegemony is on its last legs, or at least so it would seem according to a recent report showing the extent of the Chinese art market's fantastic boom.
According to "The Global Art Market in 2010," a study commissioned by the Netherlands-based European Fine Art Foundation, last year China became the second largest market in the world with a global share of 23 percent. The United States remained in first place with 34 percent, with Britain downgraded from second to the third position with 22 percent (59 percent of the EU total). Already impressive, these figures were then questioned by the analysis of Artprice, which — focusing only on sales at public auctions — declared China to in fact be the dominant art market in the world, with 33 percent of the global sales.
Whether China is now first or second, and whether such number-crunching provides an accurate portrayal of market power, the point remains that the global economic scale is rapidly tilting eastwards. According to the European Fine Art Foundation's survey "the number of High Net Worth individuals in the Asia-Pacific region now equals Europe for the first time, and their wealth is greater." Considering the exponential growth of the Chinese population alone, Europe is bound to be left behind soon.
To gauge the British art world's reaction to this shift, ARTINFO UK sounded out five prominent figures.
Director, Contemporary Art, Sotheby's London
I'm not surprised. China is the biggest country in the world, with the greatest number of people and one of the fastest growing economies, so it is no more surprising that they should be buying art and objects than any other product.
China is becoming a major force. The U.K. is a selling location, but it is not a big market in itself. Our U.K. auction rooms and a lot of U.K. dealers are selling to Chinese collectors and they are making a part of the U.K. market.
The Chinese market is growing so quickly because the majority of their sales are of Chinese art objects. It's a natural stage in the development of any economy. What is interesting is how many of these Chinese collectors will then start buying international art, French furniture instead of Ming furniture. That's something I'm very optimistic about, and I think the benefits of the Chinese market will reach around the world to New York, London, Paris, and everywhere else.
Director of Made in China & Advisory Board Member of ART HK
You just have to remember that by 2020 the figures suggest that there's going to be six hundred million middle class consumers in China. This is more than the whole population of North America, or Europe. A number of them have already reached a certain level and they are now moving from buying products into buying experiences. The art market just follows the luxury goods market that's booming all over China.
Because of its history, China hasn't had the opportunity to do what the Americans did in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, which is building a sense of national pride. My view is that at the moment, there are a lot of people buying in China, for investment but also for pride. Very big museums are being built. China wants to try to catch up with the rest of the world, and after having bought a lot of Chinese and Asian art, Chinese collectors are now beginning to buy Western art. The whole of Asia is restructuring itself around China. All these reasons are partly why Hong Kong is such a booming success — and that's why galleries are leaving the Armory to go to ART HK.
It doesn't surprise me that galleries in the West are beginning to think about opening in China. Pace did it and Gagosian has just opened a very big space in Hong Kong. There's no doubt that the new buying power lies East rather than in the depressed West. If it's true that the 19th Century belonged to Britain and the 20th Century belonged to America, it looks as if the 21st Century is going to belong to China.
Collector and Founding Director of Raven Row
This is a rather strange phenomenon because it doesn't just relate to wealth, or even new wealth. I remember when new money flooded into a very small minority of Russians' hands — it took them a very long time to buy into contemporaneity, even into art generally. What's interesting about China is that it seems that their new rich are interested in culture straight away. There are also crazy pyramid schemes with art speculation in China. Chinese culture has a history of speculation, which probably feeds into this growth of the market.
There is infinitely more expendable income in China now than there is in the U.K. The art world there is incredible, but the art market does seem to work very differently. It's very auction-led and seems to be deeply influenced by commercial trends: if it's important that art is purple than everyone will just make purple art.
Chinese people have different expectations and a very different set of values. For example, they value the idea of the copy and the fact that something is a very good reproduction of something else, whereas in the Western world everyone strives for originality.
The U.K. is unlikely to regain their position as second art market in the world. But I think that in the future you won't necessarily be able to describe creative industries in terms of national boundaries. At some point these boundaries will probably break down.
Director, Hauser & Wirth Gallery
There's definitely an influx of interest from China. We are working with more and more Asian collectors; it is an emerging market and we are very much part of it. The gallery is excited to be returning to Art Hong Kong with a bigger and more ambitious presentation this year. Asia has an enormous potential. There is a growing number of Mainland Chinese as well as Taiwanese and Koreans, who travel to international fairs and are keen to learn more about Western art.
However the survey you mention needs to be more precise, I doubt that Chinese collectors are the biggest spenders on contemporary art from Western galleries just yet. I would imagine perhaps that they could be the biggest spenders within Impressionism. There is a lot of hype out there.
I have had several Chinese visitors to our new galleries on Savile Row. They come to learn about our artists and international exhibition programme and see the gallery spaces. It is not uncommon for me to be shown architectural plans unrolled across my desk of private museums being built in Beijing and Shanghai. Many collectors have a long-term view and want to create a context for contemporary art in China. The number of potential collectors in China is almost exponential. It's a very exciting time.