Christie’s Alone Grossed US$904 Million From Asia-Pacific Sales In 2011
Coming off a stellar year in the Asian art market, which saw records fall at international auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s and emerging regional powers like China Guardian, commentators are now asking whether the momentum can continue in 2012. Though the year has started off on a strong foot, with a record-breaking US$$11.5 million Borobudur/Larasati auction of modern Indonesian masters and the Art Stage Singapore fair taking place this month, the Asian art market seems to have emerged from both the 2008-2009 global economic crisis and the more recent European debt crisis no worse from wear, but the lower enthusiasm seen at Hong Kong’s autumn auctions this past fall indicates to some that the red-hot regional market may be due for something of a slowdown.
Though these predictions may sound alarm bells for auction market observers, it pays to keep a couple of things in mind: First, the Asian market is far from a monolith, with the Indonesian, Malaysian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and other markets — and their collectors — all at different stages of development. Second, any slowdown that may occur this year could be a good thing to prevent overheating and cultivate healthier markets. This could be particularly true in countries like China, where domestic auction houses like China Guardian and Beijing Poly have seen an influx of hot money drive prices for less established Chinese artists to unsustainable levels.
Still, for all the chatter about Asia’s art market possibly losing steam in 2012, a significant drop-off seems highly unlikely, particularly in China. The most pronounced trend recently taking shape among Chinese collectors — both new and established — is bidding for the best works by blue-chip Chinese contemporary artists, while remaining cool towards sub-par works. Much of this comes down to the buying priorities of Chinese collectors. Though many see collecting as a form of cultural preservation and others see it as a means to eventually opening private museums, others view collecting as a highly pragmatic activity, a bulwark against inflation, diminishing returns from cash holdings, and uncertain real estate and stock markets. As such, Chinese buyers will continue to make up an important contingent at auctions in Hong Kong, Paris, London and elsewhere as long as there is top-quality Chinese art (whether traditional or contemporary) up for grabs — regardless of the global economic climate.
So is a sudden drop around the corner? Experts say no, pointing to the broadening of the Asian art world over the last decade as a stabilizing force. Asian collectors, for example, are increasingly diversifying their collections, branching out into works from other countries. Taiwanese collectors, for instance, are buying more Indonesian art. A recent surge in new museums and galleries, particularly in China, where an average of one hundred new museums opens each year, as well as more academic art scholarship about Asian art, has also underpinned the market. All of which makes a precipitous collapse, according to Jehan Chu, director of Hong Kong-based art consultancy Vermillion Art Collections, “hard to imagine.”
As TIME points out, a slowdown in one individual Asian market could simply translate to a boost for another. This factor has bolstered the Chinese art market for several years, as ethnic Chinese super-collectors from Indonesia, Singapore and elsewhere — among them Budi Tek, Woffles Wu, and Barry Lam — have spent millions amassing important collections of works by Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Xu Bing and Zeng Fanzhi. For their part, for the next several years we expect to see mainland Chinese collectors remain firmly fixated on the Chinese art market. But even if records stop falling at the rate we saw last spring, the fact remains that blue-chip Chinese artists remain undervalued vis-à-vis Western artists, and prices for top works should continue to tick upward as more Chinese collectors enter the market amid a tougher investment market.
To prevent the market from overheating or attracting an excessive number of speculators looking to make a quick buck, a few months to catch its breath could be just what the Chinese art market — if not the Asian market as a whole — needs.