Business

Auction Houses Look to Asian Collectors

The contemporary-art market is not much more robust in Asia than it is anywhere else. But in other genres, Asian buyers are showing some surprising muscle, snatching up pieces that Western buyers have shunned and creating a lone bright spot in an otherwise bleak market. Collectors from mainland China continue to bid aggressively on imperial artworks and porcelains viewed as heirlooms that must be repatriated. At Sotheby's New York auction last month, Asian buyers took all but one of the top 10 lots; at Christie's, 14 of the top 20 went to Asians. An Asian buyer spent $362,500 on a 12th- or 11th-century B.C. bronze food vessel, which Christie's had estimated at $20,000 to $30,000, while a rare imperial zitan stand and cover, also estimated at $20,000 to $30,000, went for $1.42 million.

Asian buyers are proving to have deep pockets in new auction categories: those associated with a high-end lifestyle. Asian oenophiles, demonstrating an educated palate and an appetite for rare wines, now account for nearly 60 percent of Sotheby's global wine sales and 61 percent of Christie's—up from a mere 7 percent in 2005. The market is so strong that several U.S. wine firms now hold regular auctions in Hong Kong, the region's premier wine-selling hub; during its latest auction there, in September, the New York wine-auction house Zachys raised $4.9 million and sold its whole stock. One week later Acker Merrall & Condit also sold its entire catalog, more than 8,300 bottles, taking in $6.4 million.

Asian collectors have also shown a voracious appetite for fine jewelry and watches. Hong Kong has overtaken Geneva to become Christie's largest center for jewelry sales, says Andrew Foster, president of Christie's Asia. He notes that the amount spent at watch auctions by buyers from greater China—consisting of the mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan—increased 500 percent over the last five years.

One testament to the rising importance of Asian buyers is the Singapore FreePort, scheduled to open early next year to provide a free-trade zone as well as high-security storage for valuables like wine, cigars, diamonds, and artwork. Its president, Alain Vandenborre, is confident that within two years the value of items in its vaults could total "a few billion dollars," with half of it the property of Asian clients.

Foster believes it's only a matter of time before Asian buyers reinvigorate the contemporary-art market, too. "The market in China for collecting is quite new, and collectors are entering through 'easier' categories to understand: wines, watches, jewelry, classical Chinese painting," he says. "But they'll all go toward contemporary painting in the end because this is the broadest global trend we've seen over the last 15 years: the move to embrace contemporary." If the faster-than-expected recovery in the Asian stock markets, now at pre-crisis levels, is anything to go by, contemporary-art prices may soon return to their former glory, pushed this time by Asian buyers.