The reported 10 billion dollar market for Chinese art is in danger of crashing after auction houses around the world clamp down on non-payers. The practice is rife and the trust or gentleman’s agreement which has been practiced by auction houses in the western hemisphere for generations is about to be reevaluated.
This year saw China overtake the UK for the first time as the number two art market after the US. It has mostly been driven by the strong demand for Imperial Chinese Antiques including a number of high profile ceramic vases from the Qianlong- dynasty. The recently reported ‘Pinner Vase’ which sold for a staggering 51.6 million pound (81.3 million dollars) in November is still sitting uncollected at Bainbridge’s the suburban London auction room in the UK. The buyer said to be a Chinese businessman has stalled and stalled costing the auctioneers a small fortune in insurance costs as it awaits collection. The most high profile case of non-payment was in February 2009, when a pair of 18th- century bronze animal heads from one of the Imperial Summer Palace’s fountains fetched 31.5 million euros at Christie’s International’s sale of the collection of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.This uncollected lot later turned into a protest statement when the buyer insisted that the works should be returned to China as they were looted in the 19th century.
The proof of a downturn in the market comes shortly after prospective bidders in Hong Kong were asked to pay deposits before being allowed to bid on designated “premium lots” at Sotheby’s sale of the Meiyintang collection of ceramics, Last week. The auction was slow as some bidders were asked to leave as much as $500,000.Thirty percent of the 77 lots in the ceramics sale were left unsold as a result. This included the top lot, a vase valued at more than HK$180 million ($23 million). It was later sold in a private after-sale for HK$200 million. It is thought that London and New York auction houses will now adopt the practice of deposits on premium lots.
Chinese antiques were valued at 6 billion euros ($8.6 billion) with a further 1.7 billion spent on Contemporary Art last year.