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Why Collectors Are Crazy For Chinese Art


Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when Jim Eccles was working as an IBM (IBM) systems engineer, he fell in love with the work of the late Chinese artist Chao Chung Hsiang, who was then living in New York. Now 69 and retired, Eccles still loves the seven colorful paintings, some abstract and others in a more traditional Chinese style, that he bought for $200 to $500 each. But lately he has thought about selling them. Based on recent auction sales, he figures they can fetch $50,000 to $100,000 each.

With the emergence of free-spending, nouveau riche collectors from mainland China, the Chinese art market is at the start of what may be an extended boom. Buyers are snatching up everything from 3,000-year-old bronze vessels to avant-garde paintings by Chinese-born artists living in China and abroad. Ever since more than 50 Asian bidders, many from China, showed up at a seminal September, 2003, sale of Chinese rarities at the Doyle auction house in New York, prices have been surpassing estimates. Some examples: At this fall's Hong Kong sales, a 1947 ink scroll by the painter Fu Baoshi, who died in 1965, sold for $1.1 million, four times as much as Sotheby's (BID) predicted. On Nov. 17, London dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi, who often buys for European and American collectors, paid a record $5.7 million for an 18-inch early Ming Dynasty dish at a Bonhams & Butterfields auction in San Francisco.

Art collecting was one of the "bourgeois" activities purged in the 1960s and '70s during the Cultural Revolution, but it has flourished under recent economic reforms. Dozens of art auction houses have sprung up in China in recent years, the most prominent of which is China Guardian in Beijing.

Experts expect prices to continue rising as China's wealth grows. "The Chinese don't understand why there's such a big price difference between Western art and the greatest Chinese art," says Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby's Hong Kong-based managing director for China and Southeast Asia. For instance, while a Picasso painting sold this spring for $104 million, works by Zhang Daqian, who lived from 1899 to 1983 and is known as "China's Picasso," usually top out at about $1 million. Chinese collectors figure Zhang's paintings should eventually approach Picasso's level.

Is it too late for smaller collectors to dive in? "Oh, God, no," says David Tang, the Hong Kong entrepreneur and art collector who argues that the rise of the Chinese art market "is just beginning."

Before you make any purchases, there are a few things you should know. It's important to buy through reputable dealers. Fakes and copies are rife, particularly of classic paintings and furniture, and even the experts can be fooled. If you're buying within China, stick to recent works. It's illegal to export paintings and artifacts dating before 1949.

One way of approaching the market, says Theow Tow, New York-based deputy chairman of Christie's Americas, is by "looking for categories where mainland Chinese haven't started buying yet but probably will." For instance, Qing-era (1368-1644) and Ming-era (1644-1911) ceramics have soared, in part because Asian buyers most prize later works connected to the Chinese emperors. But experts say Song Dynasty (960-1269) ceramics remain relative bargains. A small 13th century Song Dynasty bowl went for $2,390 at Christie's in Hong Kong on Sept. 21.

CROUCHING RABBIT

Works in stone and pottery from the Han (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) and Tang (618-907) periods remain comparatively cheap. For example, Eskenazi has a small stone Tang-era sculpture of a crouching rabbit on sale for $23,000. Chinese furniture with imperial connections commands a huge premium: A Qing Dynasty bed made from exotic hardwoods went for $847,500 at a Christie's sale in New York in September. But older softwood pieces with no imperial associations sold for as little as $5,000. Some small collectors specialize in Chinese snuff bottles, which sell for $2,000 on up. Check out Christie's snuff bottle sale in March, 2005, and the selection of London dealer Robert Hall at www.snuffbottle.com.

You can also find bargains in China's far-out contemporary art. Prices for the best known artists, such as 39-year-old Zhang Huan, have soared to $40,000 and up. Zhang, who lives in New York, often uses his own body as a canvas and sells photographs of his work. But many promising artists remain affordable. A top pick of Kent Logan, a retired securities executive in Vail, Colo., who owns 120 contemporary Chinese works, is 30-year-old Zhao Bo of Chongqing, in south-central China's Sichuan province. His jazzy street scenes sell for $700 to $9,000 or so. Julia Colman, co-owner of London's Chinese Contemporary Gallery, which sells Zhao's paintings, also likes painter and photographer Zhang Dali, 41, who documents the social stresses caused by China's modernization. His pieces start at $6,000.

If this art appeals to you, start thumbing through catalogs, visiting galleries, and studying Web sites of galleries and important shows. Dealers with expertise in Chinese art include Eskenazi Ltd. (eskenazi.co.uk) and J.J. Lally in New York for classic ceramics and pottery; Kaikodo in New York (kaikodo.com) and Alisan in Hong Kong (alisan.com.hk) for traditional paintings; and Chinese Contemporary (chinesecontemporary.com) in London, Ethan Cohen Fine Arts in New York (artnet.com/ecohen.html), and the Hanart gallery in Hong Kong (hanart.com) for avant-garde pieces. If you see something you like, don't dally. As Jim Eccles discovered, prices are rising as we speak.

Corrections and Clarifications

In "Why collectors are crazy for Chinese art" (Where to Invest, Dec. 27-Jan. 3), we reversed the dates of the Qing and Ming dynasties. Ming (1368-1644) preceded Qing (1644-1911).

By Thane Peterson


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