Bubble fears as Chinese buyers bid up art prices

Rob Schmitz Feb 9, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: You’ve heard, I’d imagine, about China’s clout in the global economy. Its high- and low-tech manufacturing base. The sheer size of its market.

What about fine art, though? Don’t hear much about that, do you? Even though the list of the 10 most expensive paintings sold last year had three Chinese artists on it. And it’s not just about the painters, either. Chinese buyers are doing their part, too.

Our China correspondent Rob Schmitz has more.

Rob Schmitz: In a studio in Shanghai, four men huddle close together. There’s an art collector, two appraisers, and an artist. They’re examining a painting of a flower by Chinese artist Qi Baishi.

Hu Xilin: He’s the Chinese Picasso. When he was alive, I think he was actually better than Picasso.

Appraiser Hu Xilin remembers a time when a Qi Baishi painting sold for around $100. That’s when nearly everyone in China lived in poverty. Last spring, a Qi Baishi painting sold for $65 million — the most expensive painting in the world last year. The artist’s worth has surged atop China’s economic tidal wave.

Art auction sounds

Art auctions in China, like this one in the city of Nanjing, are now commonplace. They’re events where China’s new rich loudly try to outbid each other for the shot at buying a piece of Chinese history. As a result, global prices for Chinese art have skyrocketed. Chinese buyers spent $4 billion on art last year.

Lydia Thompson, an appraiser of Chinese art from San Diego, recently visited China to see it all for herself.

Lydia Thompson: Say, the Sotheby’s or Christie’s auctions in New York is kind of a sort of very button-down kind of place. Everybody sort of subtly indicating that they would like to place a bid. Understated, one would say. These guys are little bit more raucous, and having a good time of it.

Maybe too good. Thompson thinks they’re getting carried away.

Thompson: What’s been happening is that people haven’t necessarily been making good on their bids.

After an overzealous Chinese bidder in London couldn’t come up with the $82 million he pledged for an 18th century vase, auction houses throughout the world have begun to demand deposits. And there’s something else that doesn’t seem right — remember that Qi Baishi painting that sold for $65 million? It turns out one of China’s largest TV networks bought it as an investment.

All this has art experts worried that Chinese speculators are inflating a global art bubble. Hu Xilin runs an auction house in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.

Hu: These new investors see these auctions as a relay race. They don’t even unwrap the paintings after they buy them. But there are many collectors in China who are rich and who appreciate fine art — and I think they’ll keep buying if this bubble pops.

Serious collectors like Sesin Jong. At his Shanghai studio, he carefully unpacks a Japanese teapot he bought at an auction last year that’s made of solid gold. He’s a connoisseur, but he also gets caught up in the frenzy of how much you can make.

Sesin Jong: I bought it for $50,000 and now it’s worth a $150,000. Everybody at the auction wanted to buy it. It was like 10 wolves fighting for a piece of steak.

Yang and his friends laugh at the thought of it. In the end, Yang had the winning bid — just like thousands of other Chinese art collectors are doing now in auctions around the world.

In Shanghai, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

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