Nervous investors canvass Asian art for big returns

Sat Feb 2, 2008 9:07pm EST
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By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) - The grinning men of "Execution" fetched $6 million at auction late last year, 187 times the price paid seven years ago by a Hong Kong banker for Chinese artist Yue Minjun's oil painting inspired by the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

Now, amid global stock market turmoil, investors are scouring the region's art for the next big windfall, hoping nouveau riche Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs will help pump up prices by stepping into a realm previously dominated by serious collectors.

"Chinese art is now viewed as another commodity to invest in," said Anthony Lin, a Hong Kong-based art consultant who used to be the chairman of Christie's Asia.

"There's been between a 10-to-60-fold price increase in the past few years which is quite spectacular. India is slightly below, but it's also amazing."

From Indian contemporary paintings to Japanese lacquers, Ming vases and ancient gilt Buddhas, Asian art is drawing specialist funds as well as new buyers from China, India, Russia and Dubai. At the same time, demand from North America and Europe remain strong.

Chinese art website Artron (, which tracks 100 auction houses, said $3.3 billion worth of Chinese art was sold in 2007, a 41 percent rise on the previous year.

A set of abstract gunpowder-on-paper drawings by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang sold in November for $9.5 million, becoming the most expensive Asian contemporary art at auction.

"We're seeing a structural shift in the global art market which is enjoying greater breadth and depth than ever," said Su-Mei Thompson, Christie's Asia business development director.   Continued...