March 5th, 2015

China’s Young Art Collectors Come of AgeMillennials urge their parents to buy foreign contemporary works

By: Gu Wei        Source: The Wall Street Journal 5/3/2015

collectorsMeet the young Chinese collectors—and their parents—who are upending the art world. On the cover of a Sotheby’s auction catalog two years ago, Lin Han saw a painting by Zeng Fanzhi, famed for depicting men in grinning masks. During a holiday with his parents, Mr. Lin, now 28, wanted to make his first art purchase by bidding for the work, and ended up paying $1 million. His parents, investors who formerly worked in the Chinese army, don’t collect art, but they pay for 20% to 30% of his art purchases, which totalled $4 million last year, and help Mr. Lin, an entrepreneur, fund his private museum in Beijing.

The boom in Chinese collecting, like the boom in the Chinese economy, has upset traditional art-world rules, compressing decades of change into just a few years. Young, often Western-educated family members have pulled their parents away from traditional ink paintings, calligraphy and ceramics, and steered them to contemporary artists, both Chinese and foreign.

Starting March 14, many of China’s biggest collectors, both parents and children, will descend on Hong Kong for Art Basel, part of the fair network that includes Art Basel Miami Beach and is the most important annual art event in Asia. More than 230 galleries from 37 countries selling everything from Chinese contemporary ink drawings to abstract installations will be vying for their attention.

The highlights of the fair include a walk-in installation, “Boat” by Zhu Jinshi, made of bamboo, cotton and sheets of rice paper; a giant bronze pumpkin by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama; a 26-foot-long tapestry by English artist Grayson Perry and a large specimen box by Korea’s Do-Ho Suh.

 Young Chinese art collectors have been making global waves by paying millions of dollars for international works. The WSJ’s Wei Gu explains how this new crop of collectors differs from their parents.

At the fair, the younger generation will likely serve, as it often has, as a bridge between established Chinese collectors and Western galleries. Liu Yiqian—a taxi-driver turned stock-market investor who owns two museums in Shanghai with his wife, Wang Wei—drew attention last year when they paid $81 million for a 500-year old porcelain cup with a chicken painted on the surface and a Tibetan tapestry in Hong Kong auctions.

Their shopping spree extended to New York last year. Their daughter Liu Wenchao, 26, who was finishing a graduate degree in art management at New York University, took her mom shopping at New York galleries. Ms. Wang bought a steel dolphin by Jeff Koonsbecause it reminded her of the swimming toy she got her son when he was little. She bought a Hiroshi Sugimoto photograph, shot in the American Museum of National History, as a deer in the photo reminds her of the works from Japanese artist Kohei Nawa, whose works she also collects.

As for Mr. Lin, buying the Zeng Fanzhi mask-series painting “was my statement that I have come to the market,” giving him the attention he sought from galleries and artists. Mr. Lin’s Instagram account is full of pictures of him posing with celebrities such as former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr. Koons, and Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

“I don’t know anyone in the U.S. or Europe who would buy the catalog cover of Sotheby’s as their first piece of art,” said Alexandre Errera, founder of the New Circle, a global network for the young collectors that offers private events and art sales. “In this race for new collectors, people who are that early into collecting surely are a gold mine.”

M Woods Museum in Beijing’s 798 art district.
M Woods Museum in Beijing’s 798 art district. PHOTO: LIN HAN

Mr. Lin’s collections include works from established artists such as Algeria-born French artist Kader Attia and English artist Tracey Emin, as well as emerging artists such as Brazil’s Lucas Arruda and British painter Jack McConville. Mr. Lin, a Chinese general’s grandson, grew up in the military compound in Beijing and went to study in Singapore at 14. He said his business activities, such as advertising, public relations and investments in properties and stocks, generate much of the cash for his art purchases. His father, a former military engineer, and mother, a former entertainment soldier (or performer in the Chinese army), are successful investors in commercial properties and stocks.

His mother Zhang Manlin said she is proud of her son, so she is supporting him. “Many young people at his age are still playing around, and I am really glad to see my only son is so passionate about something quite sophisticated,” said Ms. Zhang.

Rebecca Wei, Asia president at Christie’s, said she met a father and daughter who argued at a Hong Kong lunch about what art to buy. “The dad likes Qing Dynasty calligraphy, and hangs this $30 million work in his daughter’s bedroom,” said Ms. Wei. “The daughter said, ‘Would you sell please, it is too dark for me, let’s get a Nara!’” Japanese artist Yoshimoto Nara’s paintings often depict a seemingly innocuous subject like pastel-hued children, but with weapons like knives and saws, and cost about one-fifth of the price of the calligraphy. Ms. Wei declined to identify the family and doesn’t know who won the argument.

Collector Qiao Zhibing bought a 3-foot-long outstretched right arm, made of steel and modeled after the thousands of statues showing former leader Mao Zedong with his arm outstretched that adorn Chinese cities. Jourdan Qiao, a freshman at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, didn’t like the Mao-style sculpture.

She did accept one piece from her father, a photograph by Yang Fudong. Entitled “Don’t Worry, It Will Be Better,” the photo shows a group of well-dressed young adults lounging listlessly in an urban apartment. “My daughter was a moody teenager at the time,” said Mr. Qiao. “So I wanted to tell her, there was no need to be worried.” He later moved some of his collections from their house to his nightclubs in Shanghai and Beijing.

Sometimes the older generation can act as a check on millennials’ ebullience. Second-generation collector Zhou Chong, 26, got annoyed with his mother, an experienced collector who runs a pharmaceutical business in Shanghai, when she pulled down his hand as he was trying to bid at an auction. But now he understands what she was doing, and he bids less impulsively. “In the early days, collectors got rewarded if they had the guts,” said Mr. Zhou. “But now, it is easy to make a mistake unless you have done all the research.”

The younger generation is more interested in being involved in all aspects of art, not just owning it. David Chau, 30, who set up a $32 million art-investment fund when he was 21, now backs two galleries and Shanghai’s newest art fair, Art021. Lu Xun buys art and commissions artists to make art just for the Sifang museum in Nanjing, owned by him and his father Lu Jun, a 59-year old real-estate developer. At the moment, he is working with the Japanese artist Yutaka Sone to make a garden, using marbles and vegetables to depict a 91-foot-long snow leopard.

“The joy is to be really involved in art, in as many ways as possible,” Lu Xun, 32, texted. He said his collecting budget comes from his various investments in education and the restaurant business. He was traveling by train home from Shanghai with a picture he bought by Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vō.