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Chinese Antique Collectors: An Art Fair's Dream Come True

Fine Art and Antique Fairs all around the world are adapting their catalogues to appeal to a new generation of Chinese art collectors. Deep pockets and an appetite for expensive antiques make them the ideal client.

Chinese collectors' new love of Chinese Antiques (TEFAF)
Chinese collectors' new love of Chinese Antiques (TEFAF)
Wang Jun

MAASTRICHT - Just like the world's other famous art and antiques fairs, the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) was essentially a Westerner's playground up to a few years ago. But not any more.

This year the 25th anniversary TEFAF was held in mid-March in Maastricht, South Holland. On the third day, a group of more than a hundred Chinese buyers came to the event. All day, they toured the art stands. In the evening, "China Night" --a sort of "after" party for VIPs-- was thrown for them by the fair's executive committee.

Just as the European countries are hoping that China will buy their treasury bonds, the European antique dealers are hoping that TEFAF can attract more and more Chinese buyers, their pockets full of cash.

The Art Market Report commissioned by TEFAF confirmed that "China has overtaken the United States to become the world's largest art and antiques market, ending decades of U.S. leadership position in the field."

Nonetheless, TEFAF remains essentially Western.

A classy affair: no bag ladies here!

Tens of thousands of champagne flutes and glasses of wine, as well as finger-foods and oysters are served. Most visitors are of a certain age and are very elegantly dressed. You do not see, as you would in Beijing, any hangers-on or party-crashers, whole families just showing up for the free food. Nor do you see old bag ladies desperately trying to grab the catalogues to go directly to the scrap yard and trade them for cash.

The art and antiques the exhibiting galleries are displaying also cater to Western tastes. There are ancient Greek statues and antique furniture, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh, plus a few Impressionists, Picasso and Juan Miró.

David Pu, one of the exhibitors specializing in Sancai glazed pottery and ancient Chinese porcelain, tells me that "Five years ago, the proportion of American and European collectors to Chinese collectors was about 9 to 1. In the last two years the ratio has changed to fifty-fifty."

Most of these dealers come from families whose art or antique business has been passed on from generation to generation, so even if they have to learn the Chinese collectors' tastes to be more successful in their sales --like David Pu who has even adopted a Chinese name (his real name is David Priestley)-- they are not going to alter their whole catalog or change their line of business just to cater to the Chinese.

However, "There are an increasing number of exhibitors bringing in antiques specially for the Chinese collectors. Meanwhile, more and more Chinese buyers are paying more attention to antiques predating the Ming and Qing dynasties..." says Ben Jason, another Chinese antique dealer who is also Executive Committee Chairman of TEFAF.

A Chinese playground

The Chinese collectors group received a massive amount of media coverage. Xu Xiaoling --TEFAF's Chinese representative-- was chased by Western reporters, and so were the Chinese journalists accompanying the group. The Chinese buyers' deep pockets are the main focus point of this interest.

The hundred or so collectors, most of them members of the Chinese Collectors Club, who were invited to the fair by "Art on the Net" (art.net) as well as by a Xian magazine, spent a total around 10 million dollars during the event, according to Xu Xiaoling, although the official figure has not been released yet.

Buyers who couldn't make it to TEFAF this year might soon be able to see a smaller version of the fair in Beijing or Shanghai, since many exhibitors have made it known that they are eager to travel to China.

Meanwhile, a number of the Chinese collectors were impressed with both the quantity and quality of artifacts presented at TEFAF. Many of them had previously had bad experiences with Chinese art fairs back home, organized somewhat "like a kid's playground."

"I trust their experts here. I have heard that more than a dozen Chinese antique dealers had applied to join the fair last year and none were admitted. The auditing mechanism here is a lot more comprehensive and rigorous than in China. They also require the dealers to have a certain number of years of experience as well as certain specialties," Mr. Li, a Hong Kong collector points out. He didn't find many Ming and Qing porcelains but "gained a deeper understanding of export porcelain as well as other time periods' he says.

Chinese collectors' favorite things

According to the dozen Chinese reporters present at the art fair, the Chinese collectors' favorite objects can usually fit into two categories: Chinese antiques and jewelry. They also bought Tang Dynasty glaze ware and terracotta, ancient bronze wares, and Song porcelain.

A 10-carat diamond was sold to a buyer from Shanghai for 3 million dollars, making it the most expensive jewelry sold at this year's fair. Antique jeweler's booths were quite popular with the Chinese collectors.

For the novice, jewelry has a relatively low price threshold and the knowledge required is relatively small. If you don't know what to buy, just go for the brands. Antique Cartier rings and necklaces are among the favorites.

But, according to some collectors, the prices at TEFAF are generally higher than at the smaller European auction markets. "For instance, you can buy a 1920's Cartier ring for a few thousand euros in a small auction whereas here they are tagged at more than 20 thousand", says Miss Lee, a Hong Kong collector.

"Nevertheless, for the mainland collectors who don't come all the way here often, the small price difference is nothing to them. The most important thing is that they find what they like", Miss Lee continues.

Another new Chinese face in this kind of art fair is the young collector.

I met Zeng Chen Yu, a bookish young man in his twenties wearing glasses, at a pre-show. He is just as quick as the older experienced visitors when he sees something he really wants. "You've got to shoot quickly. If you don't pay attention, the stuff will be bought by others."

Zeng is studying art history at college. He comes from a family of collectors. He told me he bought some ancient Greek coins and Liao Dynasty masks last year at the fair. This year, he took a fancy to an important piece of art, a Chinese bronze tripod of the Spring and Autumn Period, at an asking price of three million dollars.

Ben Jason says these second generation collectors are often very "visual" in their choices. If they bought Japanese screens last year, they will buy a Buddha statue this year, and perhaps an Impressionist painting next year.

"It's a bit like the European and American collectors who buy the Northern Wei stone carvings. They do not really understand what stone inscriptions represent, but they like the clean lines. They look beautiful, and they go very well with their home decor." Jason believes that it will take some time for these "visual buyers' to figure out what they like about certain works of art and eventually become specialized in certain kinds of art.

People such as Zeng, young, with a good command of English, and who already know what they like, are quite simply the ideal clients for TEFAF.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - TEFAF

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