Dealers Hope to Lure Chinese Billionaires to Western Art

For newly minted Chinese billionaires looking to spend their money, a natural choice has been art and antiques from their own country, many costing millions of dollars.

Now art dealers and auction houses are trying to pitch them a harder sell: Western masterpieces by artists such as Picasso, whose paintings featured in three autumn shows in Hong Kong.

“They are the next big wave of buyers, and they could affect the market as much as the Japanese did in the ’80s,” said Jehan Chu, who runs consultancy Vermillion Art Collections.

China’s rapidly developing economy has churned out many wealthy businesspeople who have made their fortunes in industries from soft drinks to property development to the Internet.

The country is now home to the world’s largest number of dollar billionaires, according to the Hurun Rich List 2010, China’s version of the Forbes list.

China’s new rich have been snapping up Asian artwork, antiques and other collectables, pushing up prices to record levels. That was evident in November when an unnamed Chinese buyer paid $83 million at a London auction for a 19th century Qing dynasty vase found in a suburban house.

The rising number of wealthy Chinese buyers has also made Hong Kong the world’s third largest auction center after New York and London.

Chu says a lot of the buying “is largely driven by investment rather than a love or appreciation of art,” though that is changing.

In a sign of the hope that Chinese buyers are now turning their attention — and checkbooks — to Western art, Sotheby’s displayed 20 works at its Modern Masters exhibition of Impressionist and early 20th century art in Hong Kong last weekend, after holding a preview in Beijing in October.

It was the auction house’s first show held specifically for the Asian market and featured seven Picassos as well as works by Monet, Renoir, Chagall and Degas, priced from $2 million to $25 million.

Picassos are also on show at Ben Brown Fine Arts and Edouard Malingue Gallery, both opened by European art dealers in the past year in the former British colony to cash in on the growing wealth of Chinese collectors.

Pablo Picasso is widely considered to be the greatest artist of the 20th century and his works consistently fetch record prices. A 1932 painting of his mistress, “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” sold for $106.5 million in May, setting a world record price for any work of art at auction.

Many in China can now afford his paintings. The Hurun report’s researcher, Rupert Hoogewerf, said in October that he knows of at least 189 dollar billionaires in China but the real number may be more like 400 to 500.

The report lists 1,363 people with wealth of at least one billion yuan ($150 million).

But do they want to buy a Picasso? The artist might seem a bit too challenging for buyers in China, who often prefer more literal and conventionally pretty scenes.

Art dealer Edouard Malingue said some of the Chinese visitors to his gallery’s debut show have shown an appreciation for the works, some of which depict sexually charged scenes, including brothels and men peeping at women.

“Some of them, I could feel it was very new so they need more time to get used to it,” Malingue said. “Others had a much more quick interest. Even for people not familiar with his work, they had a sharp eye for his craftsmanship, they were attracted to pieces that curators would pick.”

Malingue said he has sold two of 17 paintings on display at his show, the first for his gallery, which opened in September. Both were bought by European buyers.

The show also features 23 sketchbook drawings. After it ends in Hong Kong on Friday, it will travel to Taiwan for a week.

Ben Brown, who opened the Hong Kong branch of his London gallery a year ago, has 13 works spanning 70 years of Picasso’s career in a show that runs until Jan. 28.

He said that while he hopes to sell some paintings to Asian buyers, he also expects purchases to come from wealthy Europeans visiting the city. He would not discuss specific sales.

A Sotheby’s spokeswoman said only that “some” paintings from the Modern Masters show have been sold, declining to be more specific.

But there is plenty of potential if the results of Christie’s sale of Asian contemporary and Chinese 20th century art held last weekend is anything to go by.

Thirty seven lots were sold raising more than $36 million, with most buyers listed as Asian.