Could the boom in Chinese antiques be over?

By Geoff Harris

One of the biggest stories in antiques over the past few years has been the boom in demand for East Asian art and antiques, particularly from China.

An increasingly prosperous Chinese middle class has been steadily buying up antiques and art, both from domestic and international dealers and auctions, but are the boom days over?

According to the eighth annual edition of the Global Chinese Art Auction Market Report, a partnership between Artnet and the China Association of Auctioneers (CAA), global auction sales of Chinese art and antiques reached $5.7 billion in 2019. While this sounds a lot, it represents a 10% fall year on year and the lowest level for the category since 2010.

Total auction sales in mainland China also fell by 10% in 2019, to $3.7 billion, which represents another 10-year low. This trend was replicated in overseas markets, with sales of Chinese art and antiques falling 9% year on year. Even before Coronavirus hit the Chinese economy hard earlier this year, trade tensions with the US were causing headaches; the Hong Kong protests, and the subsequent uncertainly around the former British colony’s political status, have not helped either.

Outside of China, there was also a considerable drop in sales of Chinese art and antiques, which contracted nine percent compared with the previous year in overseas markets.

So, it’s easy to assume that the boom is over, but despite these gloomy figures, it seems that appreciation for Chinese art – antiques in particular – continues to rise. While there certainly was a slowdown in the market in 2019, Sotheby’s Asia’s highest-value lot was a 300-year-old enamelled glass vase from Beijing, which sold in Hong Kong for an eye-watering $26.4 million earlier in the year.

“Buyers are selective and discerning, but the appetite for top quality, rare and fresh masterpieces continues to be there,” says Nicholas Chow of Sotheby’s Asia. “We have sold all six of the most expensive Chinese works of art this year on the international market,” added another Sotheby’s spokesperson.

In July, an 18th century Chinese vase that the owner picked up for less than £50 in the 1950s sold at auction for $9,084,486 (there is a fascinating YouTube video about the story of the vase here).

Another important factor to remember is the exponential growth in younger Chinese art and antiques buyers, who are much more comfortable with buying online. This has becoming a fast-growing industry in mainland China, and more and more online platforms are developing to meet this need;Wanwu Dezhi, a Chinese e-commerce company focusing on antiques and collectables, recently raised $80 million in funding, for example.

All of this would suggest that it is still well worth deepening your knowledge of Chinese and East Asian antiques generally, particularly as a new US presidency could mean a lessening in international trade tensions with the west. Don’t forget, China’s economy expanded 4.9% year-on-year in the third quarter of 2020, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, with consumer spending picking up noticeably with Coronavirus outbreaks now pretty much under control.

So domestic demand for quality antiques which have ended up overseas is likely to remain buoyant. If you do pick up a Chinese antique, or have something that has been in the family for a while, you could be surprised about its value at auction.

Watch out for further blogs on this subject, but in the meantime, avail yourself of the expert courses on this site. Christies has also put together a really good guide to collecting Chinese ceramics here, and House and Gardens magazine has compiled another good general resource here.

We end with a couple of salutary tales. if you do come across some Chinese antiques, or think somebody in your family may be holding some items, please, please, please take the best possible care of them.

On a recent trip to evaluate an antiques collection, Charles Hanson of Hanson’s Auctioneers noticed a Chinese pot, which dated back to 1735 – the era of Emperor Qianlong, arguably China’s greatest imperial ruler. While the auction value could have been around £700,000, it turned out the pot had been broken and stuck back together in a few places, reducing its likely value to around… £30,000.

Back in September, Hanson’s came across another precious Chinese antique, a gorgeous yellow imperial wine ewer from the 17th century, boxed up in a South Derbyshire garage and destined for the charity shop. It fetched £390,000 at auction!

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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