WORLD / Wall Street Journal Exclusive

Art collectors, dealers look east
Updated: 2006-03-24 13:38,,SB114315330576606795-H5XyoUw2wnFpM6LPzuwnagstY7g_20060331,00.html?mod=regionallinks

In the world of Asian art, the center of gravity is shifting to the East.

For years, New York's Asia Week, which starts Tuesday, has attracted well-heeled collectors and big-name dealers. But more mainland Chinese are acquiring the wealth and sophistication to become collectors. That has prompted Hong Kong dealers to create a rival art festival in their city, which will be launched with two fairs this May.

Andy Hei, a Hong Kong-based dealer in Chinese furniture, says the market for his goods in the West has slowed while his own gallery "is seeing more and more mainlanders." This year, Mr. Hei isn't going to ship any of his objects to the New York show after more than a decade of participating in the event. Instead, he is spearheading one of the two new Hong Kong shows, the International Asian Antique & Art Fair. That show is attracting more than a dozen local and international dealers, including Robert Hall and Fabio Rossi from England and Paris-based Christian Deydier.

"The Far East is a developing and growing market," says Mr. Rossi. He says he made "a few important sales" last year to dealers working on behalf of mainland clients, involving Mongolian and Tibetan bronzes. Rather than wait for these buyers to come to the West, he adds, "I will come to them."

New York Goes Contemporary

The second new Hong Kong art fair, sponsored by a consortium of Chinese museums, has a name similar to Mr. Hei's. The Asia International Arts & Antiques Fair has lined up more than 30 local exhibitors. Both fairs are scheduled to coincide with Christie's Hong Kong spring sales set for May 28-31.

This shift in the global art market is taking some steam out of Asia Week New York. That series of shows was given its moniker in 1996, after two Asian art fairs timed their launch to coincide with Christie's and Sotheby's auctions of Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian art in the city. The events attracted so many buyers that numerous galleries started holding private shows during the same period. The annual blowout typically attracts about 140 Asian art vendors, and 2005's auctions brought in $58 million in sales.

But while traditional Chinese works remain the centerpiece at Asia Week, organizers are moving into contemporary Asian art and Islamic art. The International Asia Art Fair, one of the premiere New York events, has broadened its scope to include African, Oceanic and contemporary Asian art. With some dealers in Chinese goods deciding not to attend, including Mr. Hei, Grace Wu Bruce and Marcus Flacks, organizers have opened the floor to exhibitors such as African specialists Tambaran Gallery and Donald Morris Gallery of New York, and contemporary art vendors such as Sundaram Tagore Gallery, which handles new works by Indian artists.

Meanwhile, New York's Arts of Pacific Asia Show will continue to feature traditional Chinese exhibitions, but this year the fair expects a greater presence by Islamic-art dealers. Show organizer Bill Caskey says that with Iraq and Middle East politics in the news, "people want to diversify their collections and want to know more about" the history of Islam.

Sotheby's and Christie's are introducing separate catalogs for their New York shows featuring contemporary Asian and Indian art. Sotheby's estimates it will take in $6 million to $8 million from these goods, out of its total Asia Week estimate of $31 million to $43 million. Christie's, meantime, estimates it will fetch $7 million to $9 million from its auction next Friday of 166 lots of contemporary Indian art. That sale is believed to be the largest and most diversified selection of Indian art ever offered by an international auction house. Christie's estimate for its total Asia Week sales is $29 million to $40 million.

In 2000, Christie's stopped selling Chinese paintings in New York because it was having trouble sourcing enough of them for both the Hong Kong and New York markets. While Christie's New York saw its sales of Chinese antiques rise to $28.4 million in 2005 from $24.2 million in 2001, its Hong Kong sales more than doubled since 2001, hitting $59.5 million last year. At Sotheby's New York, meantime, sales of Chinese works have risen steadily, reaching $29.5 million last year. But Sotheby's sales of Chinese art in Hong Kong jumped to $94.3 million last year from $18.5 million in 2001.

Record Prices on Mainland

The Western auction houses can expect to see more competition from their Chinese counterparts. Sales at mainland auctions jumped to $1.1 billion last year from less than $50 million in 1999, says Zhang Yan Hua, director of the China Association of Auctioneers. (This figure includes modern and contemporary paintings, whereas the Sotheby's and Christie's figures don't.)

Mainland auction houses have also started to ring up world-record prices. Lu Shao Yan's Du Fu Poem Folding Pamphlet, a piece that was "repatriated" from abroad, sold for $8.62 million at Beijing Hanhai Art Auction Corp. in 2004 -- a record for this category of Chinese paintings.

The shift of the Asian art world to the East could accelerate if China is successful in curbing the trade of its antiques in the U.S. The Chinese government has petitioned the U.S. State Department to halt imports of articles more than 95 years old, under the provisions of a United Nations convention on trade in cultural goods. If the U.S. government agrees, "it will mean that the Chinese art market [in New York] will be over," says Melissa Chui, museum director of New York's Asia Society. The move by Hong Kong dealers to launch their own Asia Week is "pre-empting what a lot of people think will eventually happen."