Selling Jesus to Atheist
My father is a crazy religious man and a folk artist. His name is Robert Roberg and he is slightly famous in the religious folk art scene (yes, that does exist). I say slightly famous because he has been featured in the New York Times and he has two painting (one on display) in the Smithsonian Art Museum, he has also been featured in numerous folk art publications. What does that have to do with selling Jesus to Atheist? Recently, my father asked me to look into the Chinese art market and find out if his work could be sold in China. The following is a report about the Chinese Art Market.
Chinese Art Market Overview
The Chinese Art Market peaked in 2011. According to Michael Barris,
In 2011, China overtook the US as the world’s largest art market as wealthy new buyers paid top prices for works from Ming vases to contemporary Chinese paintings. Michael Plummer, a New York-based art-market financial analyst, told China Daily earlier this year that new collectors in China were buying “recklessly,” to snap up objects – both for their investment value and for the image of wealth they conferred. Then early last year, the steam began to go out of the buying spree. By year’s end, sales at the Chinese mainland’s major auction houses, the hub for the vast majority of art sales in the country, had plunged.”
The Chinese art market in 2011 was worth about $13 billion, according to The European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF). Rachel Corbett writes in her post titled HOW BIG IS THE GLOBAL ART MARKET?
China’s share of the auction business in 2011 was €9.8 billion, or almost $13 billion — 42 percent of the $30.5 billion auction total. The top two auction firms in China are Poly International, whose 2011 sales totaled €1.4 billion ($1.85 billion), and China Guardian, at €1.3 billion ($1.7 billion). A substantial proportion of the China-based activity is due to the global reach of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which reported $1.14 billion and $924 million, respectively, from their China operations.
These numbers don’t add up — the four top firms only account for about $5.2 billion of a $13 billion total — but McAndrew explained in an email that the rest of the $7.8 billion comes from the more than 350 smaller auction houses in China (which include Beijing Hanhai, Beijing Council, Xinlingyinshe and Sungari).
Now the market is settling, it is rebounding from the buying spree and stabilizing. The market is now estimated around half or a little over $6.5 billion (multiple estimates available). The Chinese art market is mainly concentrated in Hong Kong because foreign auction houses cannot sale art work in mainland China. According to Madeleine O’Dea of Art+Auction:
Hong Kong is the world’s third-largest auction market after New York and London. With rock-bottom taxes, zero tariffs on art and most other goods, a well-regarded legal system, and unmatched infrastructure, from banking to transport to communications, the city is a magnet for buyers from across the region”
The Chinese buy for status. They often do not care much about the history or culture value of a work of art; they only care about its monetary value. Wealth is still relative new in China and many wealthy individuals are looking for new ways to flaunt their wealth. The two main reasons Chinese buy art are status and investment.
Chinese collectors buy art for two major reasons: status and investment. “Chinese businessmen travel to Europe and the United States. They meet Pinault, Arnault or the Rockefellers and realize that to be successful you don’t only need to be wealthy, but also need to buy art”, says François Curiel, President of Christies Asia. Chinese millionaires want to have all the symbols that go with their newly acquired wealth. Purchasing art is one of the signs of high social status.
In addition, Mainland buyers see “value of investment” as crucial. “With people from Hong Kong, you can talk about the art, but with mainlanders the conversation is all about the investment potential,” Kate Bryan says.” – Qian Jing
The Chinese prefer traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphy, according to a report produced by Art Market Monitor of Artron (AMMA) and Artprice titled ”The Art Market in 2012: a Dialogue Between East and West” (PDF). The graph below, taken from the report, shows the buying preference of the Chinese art consumers.
The Chinese art market is currently dominated by domestic art work. “Chinese collectors buy almost exclusively domestic art, and they don’t prefer contemporary artists, rather they go for old masters, Galbraith told Forbes.” The Chinese buyers are more interested in art that is related to Asia and specifically China.
For example, the collectors voted for an abstract composition by Chu Teh Chun (achieving the sale’s record price of HK$4 million/$516,000, for his Composition No. 170 dated 1964). They also bought the print Mao by Roy Lichtenstein ($23,220) but passed on a more American subject by the same artist, the print, Modern Room (Study). They snapped up Andy Warhol’s six “Dollar Sign” prints that sold for between $38,700 and $41,280. This makes sense, as the $ sign applies equally to the US dollar and the Hong Kong dollar.” – The Art Market in 2012
After the run up in 2011, many investors are welcoming the market correction. The overall outlook for the Chinese art market is positive. With the 40 percent market correction, many investors expect to see a more healthy and stable market in the future. They also expect to see less fraud, counterfeit art work, and inflated pricing within the market.
Among some auction professionals, a market correction is not seen as a bad development. Toward the end of last year, in an interview with the leading Chinese art market Web site Artron, Guardian cofounder Chen Dongsheng predicted a 40 percent reduction in the market over the course of 2012. A chorus of agreement and approval ensued. There is a general belief that if some of the heat can be taken out of the Chinese mainland market, a lot of the corruption will evaporate, leaving the field to the more reputable houses, dealers, and collectors. Gong Jisui, a distinguished academic at the Chinese Central Academy of Fine Arts, commented to Hong Kong’s Sing Tao Daily that a 40 percent drop in the market was “not only inevitable, but also healthy.” – Madeleine O’Dea
Marketing to China
Based on the Chinese buying habits, the best strategy is convincing buyers of the long term investment opportunity or the short term status boost. I say short term status boost because after you tell your friends you just bought an original Andy Warhol, Picasso, or Monet, the social value quickly depreciates. Your friends know you are wealthy and they knew before you bought the painting and your social status is boosted but your friends already knew you were wealthy. The “AHH, OHH” effect wears off quickly.
Recommendation for My Father and Unknown Artists
My father is relatively unknown and his subject matter (religious art) is not valued within China. So my recommendation is for him to actively search for buyers that have unusual buying habits. Because much of my father’s work is experimental (3D art and florescent art) I feel the only way to sale his art within China would be to personally search for buyers. There is a lot of money and interest in art within China but their taste and preferences do not align with my father’s offering. Unknown artists are not highly sought after because of the low investment value. The Chinese buyer still buys art based on investment and status and less on style, technique, or uniqueness. With that said many artists may be able to find interested buyers but the burden falls on the artist, the Chinese buyer will not search them out, yet.
Final Thoughts on the Chinese Art Market
There is a lot of opportunity in the market but buying habits and preferences differ greatly from the western markets. I predict that as the market matures, we will start to see many collectors break from the traditional buying habits and start creating buying profiles based on style, artist, and time period. The Chinese collectors will soon start buying based more on what they like and less on what is valuable. After all, art is about emotion and people will always buy what moves them.