Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

How to buy your first serious piece of Chinese art

By Johan Nylander, Zoe Li, CNN
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Zhang Xiaogang's "Bloodline: Big Family No. 3" sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong on April 5 for a record $12.1 million. Zhang Xiaogang's "Bloodline: Big Family No. 3" sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong on April 5 for a record $12.1 million.
HIDE CAPTION
Chinese art, auction gold
Chinese art, auction gold
Art of money: High prices for Chinese works
Chinese art, auction gold
Chinese art, auction gold
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New to Chinese art? Remember the mantra: Research, research, research
  • Blue-chip always pays, so buy high, sell high -- if you can afford it
  • Maoist kitsch is so over, be adventurous and look for new media, video, and photography

(CNN) -- With astronomical Chinese art prices making recent headlines ($36 million for a decorated porcelain cup, anyone?) it's hard not to wonder how one can elbow into the art market for a piece of the pie.

For those outside of the Chinese art scene, entering the market can be intimidating. With reports surfacing in recent years on forgery, fraud, and money laundering, the art game seems even harder to play.

"The art market is not very transparent," admits Alexandre Errera, founder of online art gallery Artshare.com. But he, and several other experts we spoke to, offer some insight on how to see clearly inside the Chinese art market, with tips on the hottest works to buy right now.

Dig deep

"Chinese art is a jungle," says Errera. Navigating the wild terrain requires patience and passion, especially if the buyer is unfamiliar with Chinese history and culture.

Start at regional art fairs, such as Art Basel Hong Kong, or SH Contemporary, where a lot of artists can be seen all at once. If you find yourself thinking about a work long after you've seen it, approach the gallery and go deeper. Look at many works from the artist's entire career.

For those fascinated by the meticulous craft of watchmaking, there are few more important events than Baselworld -- the annual trade show for the international watch and jewelry industry in the Swiss border city of Basel. There, visitors have the chance to see the world's most extravagant, rare and complex timepieces, such as this MasterGraff Ultraslim Tourbillon by British jeweler Graff. For those fascinated by the meticulous craft of watchmaking, there are few more important events than Baselworld -- the annual trade show for the international watch and jewelry industry in the Swiss border city of Basel. There, visitors have the chance to see the world's most extravagant, rare and complex timepieces, such as this MasterGraff Ultraslim Tourbillon by British jeweler Graff.
Powerhouse gathering
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
>
>>
Baselworld 2014 Baselworld 2014
Promising artist among those lost on MH370
Inside Politics: Bush's Putin painting

"Some collectors never buy without meeting with the artist," says Errera.

When it comes to valuating the works, there are plenty of online resources. Websites like artnet.com, artprice.net, and artvalue.com offer information about an artist's auction records and previous owners.

It also pays to see who is your competitor. If institutional investors, museums, art funds, or other private collectors are also buying this artist, that's a plus.

Calligraphy, photography, but not Mao

When looking for undervalued Chinese art as an investment, start with ink and brush paintings made by artists born after the 1970s.

"Contemporary ink paintings are a good buy. Some are very, very affordable," says Sotheby's Asian art expert Mee-seen Loong. "Also Asians have always valued traditional calligraphy. You can find good works from $10,000 to $1 million."

Errera on the other hand suggests Chinese video art and photography, both offering a small number of good contemporary artists, but with a great potential to grow in value and interest.

He also points out that the days of kitsch art with Maoist imagery are over. Contemporary artists, such as Chen Fei, Zhao Zhao, and Li Shurui were born after the Cultural Revolution and do not focus overtly on politics as their predecessors did.

"They are not what you would typically think of as 'Chinese,'" says Errera.

It's a gamble

If you can afford it, entering the market at the higher end will likely bring a larger return on your investment. Errera says it is quite rare not to make a profit on blue chips works that go for more than $1 million, like Zhang Daqian or Qi Baishi.

Buying more affordable pieces, around the $10,000 mark, has the potential for the largest return, but it's risky. "Unless you have inside information, it's like buying a lottery ticket," says Errera.

At the end of the day, don't be too speculative. "I would not recommend a client to buy a young artist who suddenly became super famous. It's too high risk. Prices can fall quickly again. Start with a mid-range artist. It's more value proof," says art world lawyer Laurens W. Kasteleijn.

Auction dos and don'ts

"The art market is not very transparent. The secondary art market (auctions) is even less so," says Errera.

Auction first-timers must set a budget and a theme for themselves. After the bidding starts, best sit on your hands when the budgeted price is surpassed. Sotheby's Loong warns against impulse buying, which she calls "a serious mistake."

For more experienced buyers though, she recommends being ruthless: "Spend beyond your means, reach as far as you can get, and always go for the better piece. Otherwise you'll regret it."

Protect your interests

"The art world has by tradition been based on gentlemen's agreements," says Kasteleijn, he founded the company Art Law Services. "But the market has become more international and includes more money today than before, so it's important to protect your interests."

At the very least, request a certificate of authenticity when purchasing a work, and have it signed by the artist. If you are buying from a third party or reseller, it is also a good idea to ask for a proof of purchase from the artist, or gallery representing the artist. Keep all e-mail, receipts and details that can prove a legitimate transaction for when you want to resell the art in the future.

Sometimes your gut feeling will also tell you when you're being lured into an unreliable sale.

"For me it's very important that the gallery manager likes art," says Kasteleijn. "If they immediately start talking about art as an investment, it's a big turn-off."

Golden rule

Although everybody interviewed for this article offered different advice, all agreed on this: to make a good art investment you have to enjoy art.

"Do you want the piece of art on your wall? If not, don't buy it," says Kasteleijn.

"It doesn't matter if you know much about art or not, you must enjoy it. Otherwise it's like collecting wine without drinking it."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 0551 GMT (1351 HKT)
David McKenzie meets some American teenagers who are spending a year in China to be fully immersed in the culture.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 0259 GMT (1059 HKT)
Chinese students show a handmade red ribbon one day ahead of the the World AIDS Day, at a school in Hanshan, east China's Anhui province on November 30, 2009.
The Chinese government pledges to protect a boy with HIV, who was shunned by his entire village in Sichuan, state media reported.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
A Chinese couple allegedly threw hot water on a flight attendant and threatened to blow up the plane.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 0503 GMT (1303 HKT)
China's 1.3 billion citizens may soon find it much harder to belt out their national anthem at will.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 0021 GMT (0821 HKT)
Los Angeles in the last century went through its own smog crisis. The city's mayor says LA's experience delivers valuable lessons for Beijing.
December 6, 2014 -- Updated 0542 GMT (1342 HKT)
At the height of his power, security chief Zhou Yongkang controlled China's police, spy agencies and courts. Now, he's under arrest.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 0826 GMT (1626 HKT)
China says it will end organ transplants from executed prisoners but tradition means that donors are unlikely to make up the shortfall.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 0648 GMT (1448 HKT)
China's skylines could look a lot more uniform in the years to come, if a statement by a top Beijing official is to believed.
December 3, 2014 -- Updated 0855 GMT (1655 HKT)
Despite a high-profile anti-corruption drive, China's position on an international corruption index has deteriorated in the past year.
November 26, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
A daring cross-border raid by one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's associates has -- so far -- yet to sour Sino-Russian relations.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 0051 GMT (0851 HKT)
A 24-hour bookstore in Taipei is a popular hangout for both hipsters and bookworms.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0153 GMT (0953 HKT)
China is building an island in the South China Sea that could accommodate an airstrip, according to IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1057 GMT (1857 HKT)
North Korean refugees and defectors face a daunting journey to reach asylum in South Korea, with gangs of smugglers the only option.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 2319 GMT (0719 HKT)
China and "probably one or two other" countries have the capacity to shut down the nation's power grid and other critical infrastructure.
ADVERTISEMENT