The Power of Youth: A younger base of collectors in Asia looks beyond their region

Art Stage 2018
Asian collectors, in particular Chinese collectors, have made their presence keenly felt in the art market in the past 10 years.

According to Art Basel and UBS’s Art Market 2018 report, China’s share of the global art market – now estimated at $63.7 billion — has ballooned from 8% to 21% since 2007.

For the first half of 2018, Christie’s reported a 24% increase in new buyers from Mainland China and noted that 60% of its ‘Asian client spend’ globally was now on works outside of Asian art categories. For the same period, Asian clients accounted for 28% of Sotheby’s aggregated auction sales and had purchased eight of the top 20 lots it had sold to date, while the number of Asian clients buying Western art at Sotheby’s worldwide had grown by 28% — at the New York Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in May, a quarter of all works sold were acquired by Asian private collectors, while Asian spending nearly tripled at London's Contemporary Art Day and Evening Sales in June.

Interestingly, Sotheby’s reported 23% of buyers in Asia were below 40, with the percentage of young buyers reaching 40% in Hong Kong, a trend also noted by Sundaram Tagore, owner of galleries in New York, Singapore and Hong Kong: “Chinese collectors happen to be a lot younger and are shaping the artistic ecosystem with their collecting process. Some of these collectors are highly influential individuals who are building galleries and museums, and on some occasions using art as a vehicle to create social influence in their culture.”

Changing Tastes
Tagore notes that some of these younger collectors have come from a tradition of collecting antiquities with parents who have been collected art of the past. “Younger collectors who have taken charge are well conversant in contemporary artistic language. Many have studied art history or some aspect of the humanities and they are often immersed in the international art circuit. They are proactive in terms of self-education, attending important art fairs and biennales, etc.,” he says.

Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign (9 works), 1980-82
Courtesy Sotheby's
“Chinese collectors first bought Chinese art, but as they got to learn more and more what was out there via art fairs and top collectors traveling around to different fairs, they have paved the way for others to follow suit, and now it’s really a full-fledge, broad collecting base. The buying is there. Right now the Chinese collectors that we see at Art Basel are very interested in Western Art, while still supporting their local artists,” says Emi Eu, director of the STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery.

This shift of interest can also be seen in the recent offerings at auction houses. Last June, Sotheby’s Hong Kong held an auction that it described as “curated through the eyes of young Asian collectors,” offering what it considered “accessibly priced works” by pioneering contemporary and street artists as well as cutting-edge pieces from emerging artists. The result was a white glove sale (100% sold) with Yuki Terase, Sotheby’s Head of Contemporary Art, Asia, commenting the results were a testament to the “fast-growing collecting vigour of young Asian art lovers.”

In 2018, Sotheby’s Hong Kong also held, for the first time, a sale entirely dedicated to Western Old Masters, with work by Rembrandt and lesser-known Dutch masters of the period. Justifying the move, Patti Wong, Sotheby’s Chairman for Asia, said, “In the last five years, we have seen the number of Asian bidders at Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings sales double and the spend increased tenfold compared to the prior five-year period, reflecting the growing appetite for more traditional Western art.”
Rembrandt, Study of a Seated Mother, and Child in a high chair/ Courtesy Sotheby's

The Swiss MCH Group, parent company of Art Basel, recently reorganized its strategy and while it announced plans to divest from Art India Fair and also pulled out of the planned Art SG to be launched in November, it remains committed to Asia and is looking to expand Masterpiece — the London cross-collecting fair that brings antiques, Old Masters and contemporary art under one roof — to a new location in Asia.

Southeast Asia regrouping
While Southeast Asian collectors have traditionally supported their respective home markets, Eu notes that interest has dwindled a little for contemporary art and points out, “Right now the focus is on collecting modern art, works by artist like Cheong Soo Pieng and Chua Ek Kay for Singapore,” adding local collectors are also branching out to collect contemporary artists out of the region.

Tagore notes there are differences in buying patterns amongst Asian collectors and, for example, while there is a “fairly solid group of collectors” in Singapore, they are “more focused on artists largely from Southeast Asia. However, one cannot discount the highly influential expat community in Singapore, who tend to buy art from across the globe.”

He adds, “Singaporean buyers are more social, so they share information amongst each other at parties, openings and social gatherings, whereas collectors from China are often more independent in collecting. The buying habits of collectors from China lean more towards the higher numbers, as they are used to six-figure numbers, and that frequently happens to be part of the conversation.”

While Eu hopes S.E.A. Focus, a new pop-up event offering work for sale this January at Gillman Barracks that is part of Singapore Art Week, may help to reignite attention on the region

Magnus Renfrew, co-founder of Art SG fair to be held in Singapore October 31–November 3, sees “great potential for the Southeast Asia market with its huge population which is very affluent,” noting that while no individual domestic market in the region is “big enough to sustain an art fair of the level of ambition we are looking to put on, collectively the different collector bases are large enough."

​He adds, “We really want to create a hub fair for Southeast Asia. We are looking to keep it realistic in terms of scale, we are not trying to recreate Art Basel. But right across Asia I think there are opportunities for art fairs, which are currently a little bit behind where they should be in a sense of attaining global standards of practice in terms of having a transparent selection process and having a selection committee that reviews the applications.”

As first published in PRESTIGE SINGAPORE January 2019 edition