Cover Story

'Crass' Chinese collectors are 'urban myth'

Updated: 2011-02-18 10:54

By Andrew Moody (China Daily European Weekly)

Twitter Facebook Myspace Yahoo! Linkedin Mixx

Buyers help add new vitality to market previously restricted to elites in west

'Crass' Chinese collectors are 'urban myth'
Jussi Pylkkanen, the president of Christie's Europe, says Hong Kong is one of the strongest markets in the world for art sales. Chen siyu / for China Daily 

Jussi Pylkkanen, the president of Christie's Europe, says there has been a big increase in Chinese visitors to the auction house's London salerooms. At times the numbers have been so high that specialists from the Chinese department have had to commandeer from poring over old manuscripts and silk paintings to act as interpreters.

"Yes, that is the case but they enjoy this," he laughs.

"The Chinese department are all Mandarin speaking but we also have people who work with the organization who speak the language."

The Chinese are proving big business to the 245-year-old art auctioneer. Christie's International announced in January its worldwide sales had increased by 53 percent from 2.4 billion euros in 2009 to 3.8 billion euros last year.

The figures were boosted by a spectacular performance in Asia with sales in Hong Kong more than doubling from 250.9 million euros to 518 million euros.

"We have seen a greater number of Chinese here over the last 24 months or so," adds Pylkkanen.

The impact of Chinese and other Asian bidders was evidenced in New York in May last year when a Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, painted in 1932, fetched $106.4 million (78.75 million euros).

"It was the most significant picture sold on the international art market in the last 50 years. There was very active bidding on that picture from Asian buyers who were underbidders rather than successful ones. There was Asian bidding in the top five lots in that sale," says Pylkkanen.

Pylkkanen comes across as far removed from the upper class types that still tend to dominate the international art market.

A native Finn, the 47-year-old speaks with an almost classless southern English accent.

He is at ease talking about football (asking me who the Scunthorpe United manager was) as he is discussing the colorist works of Chagall (the 19th Century French artist).

His office in King Street in St James's in London is quite cramped but still has the bragging rights of a large Picasso on one of the walls.

He says Chinese buying has gradually built up since Christie's opened an office in Hong Kong in 1986.

"It has been consistently growing but much more considerably in the last decade. The last five years have seen a lot of mainlanders buying and our Hong Kong sales have risen almost exponentially, " he says.

He says Hong Kong is one of the strongest markets in the world for art sales.

"There is an element of energy there driven by an ever strong trend of mainlanders buying. Whereas in London or New York you might see three bidders for every item, in Hong Kong there is often seven or eight. It is one of the most energetic markets in the world at the moment."

Pylkkanen has been in his current role since 2005 and has been instrumental in developing new markets for Christie's in both Russia and the Middle East and he believes the Chinese market is developing along a similar footprint.

"When Russian buyers came to us six or seven years ago they tended to focus on the art the most familiar to them such as their native works before moving on to look at Western art and that is what we are seeing also with the Chinese," he says.

This diversification has led to the Chinese showing interest in some unexpected areas such as 19th Century Victorian art. In a London sale in 2008, Asian buyers, believed to be Chinese, paid world record prices for a number of pre-Raphaelite artists. A work by Albert Joseph Moore fetched 2.23 million euros.

"What tends to happen is that you get a group of collectors who are very wealthy who will be interested in particular things and they then encourage others," he says.

The Chinese have famously moved into buying the leading major French impressionists, which for a long time have been the trophies of the art world.

They still are keen to buy their own artifacts as evidenced when an 18th Century Qianlong vase, which had been insured for less than 1,000 euros, fetched 62 million euros at a local auction in northwest London.

"Great objects will always make great prices wherever they appear. You can sell a masterpiece anywhere in the world and it will make its price because everyone will be attracted to it. It is obviously an incredibly important piece," he says.

Is it a classic example, however, of China's new rich overpaying for items and therefore skewing the market?

"In all the major sales you will see a work make five or six times its estimate. It is very unusual for it to make quite the multiple that vase did," he says.

"It has now established its price. It is worth that money because that is what it made on the open market. You would insure it now at that price and more."

Pylkkanen says Chinese objects can add a new time dimension to works of art offered on the open market.

"We had a show in the Autumn showing the major works of art we had on sales over the next six months. We had an Andy Warhol and some Chinese bronzes which were actually made some 23 centuries earlier," he says.

"In the same show there were some early Western art in the form of illuminated manuscripts from the 12th and 13th centuries. These we would normally regard as being early."

Although born in Helsinki, Pylkkanen's parents sent him to England to be educated, first to King's College in Wimbledon and then at Oxford, where he read English literature.

His grandfather was a professor of art in Finland and it was he who to some extent inspired him to work in some sort of art field.

"It was very odd that a job in the art world was something people didn't take very seriously. For me it was second nature but everyone seemed to think I was a complete nutter," he says.

He began his career as a dealer in Bond Street before joining Christie's in 1986 as a modern print specialist.

He later ran the impressionist department before taking on his current role six years ago. He often acts as an auctioneer in Christie's major evening sales.

He says the current focus on China's new rich buying art is misleading.

"Actually, if you look at the global rich only a small percentage of them buy great works of art. There is this tendency to think that just because they are wealthy, they collect," he says.

He also dismisses the idea the new generation of Chinese collectors are crass and that they don't, for instance, buy vintage wines at auction and mix them with lemonade.

"It is an urban myth I first heard 12 years ago. With any new market there is always these urban myths and I am sure there is little truth in them," he says.

He says buyers from China and other parts of the world have added a new vitality to the art market, which only a generation ago tended to be restricted to elites in Europe and the United States.

"The art world I entered in the 1980s is not the art world of today. Even talking about people from the Chinese mainland buying art then would have been impossible," he says.


Ear We Go

China and the world set to embrace the merciful, peaceful year of rabbit

Preview of the coming issue
Carrefour finds the going tough in China
Maid to Order

European Edition


Mysteries written in blood

Historical records and Caucasian features of locals suggest link with Roman Empire.

Winning Charm

Coastal Yantai banks on little things that matter to grow

New rules to hit property market

The State Council launched a new round of measures to rein in property prices.

Top 10 of 2010
China Daily in Europe
The Confucius connection