Domestic collectors of the contemporary Chinese genre are upstaging foreign buyers in the volume and value of purchases.
Chinese contemporary art continues to set global sales records, but the concentration of buyers is shifting from international to homegrown collectors. As Belgian husband and wife Baron Guy and Myriam Ullens have been liquidating their collection - once the world's largest - mostly Chinese buyers are snapping up the items. They dominated the Oct 2 Sotheby's Hong Kong evening auction, The Ullens Collection - Experimentation and Evolution, which brought in more than HK$132 million ($16 million). That was after they took the lion's share of Sotheby's Hong Kong Spring 2011 The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant-Garde China sale, which generated HK$427 million.
The auctions were not only the largest but also the most valuable sale of contemporary Chinese art from a single-owner collection.
Sotheby's Hong Kong says the number of Chinese buyers who spent more than HK$10 million last year is twice as many as that of buyers from North America and the UK combined. And the amount the Chinese spent was three times that of their Western counterparts.
"Chinese collectors are taking the stage," says Chen Zhe, director of the National Development and Reform Commission's Culture Industry Research Institute of the International Cooperation Center.
Chinese contemporary art has undergone several growth spurts in its relatively short life span.
It got off to a slow start in the conservative mid-1980s and accelerated after 2000, as artists, curators and critics became increasingly sophisticated.
The sales trajectory became particularly gravity defying from 2003 until the financial crisis began to drag international sales earthward in 2008.
That's when domestic buyers stepped in and re-energized its buoyancy.
Most are elite professionals from such sectors as financial investment, real estate and energy, Beijing Bonwin Contemporary Art Investment Co's academic department manager Tu Xin says. Most are middle-aged, well educated and have overseas backgrounds, Tu, who has worked in the field since 2003, says.
The group is small, but the constant addition of newcomers makes it difficult to arrive at a precise tally.
Wang Wei has emerged as a figurehead of the domestic purchasers' set by appearing at nearly every auction in recent years and setting several price records. The 47-year-old and her husband, Liu Yiqian, have spent nearly 2 billion yuan ($317 million) on art in the past two years.
Wang was an early arrival in the market. She became a regular at auction houses - and one of the few Chinese buyers - a decade ago.
Most of her collection comprises pieces created in the 1990s, which she calls the "most powerful works".
While their poignancy has remained steady, their values have surged.
But Wang believes Chinese contemporary art is in an intermediate market position and its value will continue to rise.
"Market saturation hasn't happened yet, and won't until only a smaller elite can afford these artworks," she says.
Chen also believes prices are yet to peak. But Chen and Tu point out the term "Chinese collector" fails to distinguish between those who buy for enjoyment and those who do it as investments.
Art collection is a tradition in foreign countries, Tu says.
"While China has a history of collecting antiques for pleasure, purchasing contemporary art is more investment oriented," Tu says.
Indonesian-Chinese collector Budi Tek explains Indonesians, unlike Chinese, "never sell" works from their collections.
President of Taiwan's Mountain Art Foundation Lin Ming-Che believes there are times when collectors need to sell.
"I sold one painting from a big-name artist to buy 50 works by up-and-coming artists and to sponsor an exhibition tour through four cities," Lin says.
Lin points to the Ullens' sale and says while collectors' decisions should be respected, they shouldn't be able to influence the creative process through market manipulation.
Celebrated contemporary artist Zhang Xiaogang believes, "Good artists create - rather than follow - the market."
Zhang's 1988 triptych oil work Forever Lasting Love set a record when it sold for HK$79 million at Sotheby's Hong Kong Spring 2011 sale of The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant-Garde China. His Bloodline: Big Family No 1 took the second place when it went for HK$65.6 million at Sotheby's Hong Kong's Oct 3 Contemporary Asian Art auction.
But the 53-year-old insists: "Those records have nothing to do with me."
He only made $2,000 when he sold Forever Lasting Love in 1989.
"The market is a new development artists must cope with," Zhang says.
I don't believe the market is mature, with many buying but few holding on to their purchases."
To improve this situation, Chen founded the Annual Conference of Collectors of Chinese Contemporary Art in 2009. The event is meant to provide a platform for new and old buyers to exchange experience and knowledge.
Many longtime collectors, such as Wang Wei, suggest beginners monitor updates about artists - their works, shows and sales - and only buy pieces with clear origins and trade records.
She points out contemporary art is easier to authenticate than antiques, as most of the artists are still alive.
On Oct 18, Zhang posted a message on his Weibo micro blog, saying that the version of his 2000 oil painting Little Girl, advertised to go under the hammer at Beijing Tranthy Auction House's autumn sale, was a fake. The auction house apologized to Zhang and dropped the piece from its catalogue.
Tu says collectors can also turn to artists' family members seeking authentication.
At last month's Third Annual Conference of Collectors of Chinese Contemporary Art in Hunan's provincial capital Changsha, all Chinese collectors present agreed that a credible third-party evaluation body should be established. It should span fields of expertise, including fine arts, finance and auction operation, and its membership should be geographically diverse to avoid regional deviations, the conference decided.
The event's participants also examined collectors' social responsibility obligations.
The event's co-organizer, Tan Guobin, opened a private contemporary art museum in Changsha in 2004.
Beijing-based collector of contemporary realistic oil painting, Tang Ju, loans his collection to exhibitions and museums several times a year. Tang also plans to open a private museum to permanently showcase 100 of his purchases.
Lin, the Taiwan collector, is assessing museums and plans to donate his entire collection when he finds the right one.
In 2009, Wang and her husband - who are refocusing their goal towards buying more from artists born after 1980 - invested 200 million yuan to build the Long Art Museum. The 30,000-square-meter private venue, scheduled to open next October in Shanghai, will present around 4,000 works from their collection.
But, Wang says, hopeful exhibitors will have to wait longer.
"It's already booked until 2014."