As markets plunge, Asia's wealthy flock to art

Mon Dec 19, 2011 1:57pm EST
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By James Pomfret and Lisa Yuriko Thomas

HONG KONG (Reuters) - In a spacious, luxury apartment perched on the leafy hills of Hong Kong, Kai-Yin Lo browses through a trove of Chinese art acquired over several decades, reflecting how her niche, scholarly pursuit has now hit the mainstream.

Despite giddy Chinese art prices showing some strain from global economic uncertainty, collectors like Lo think values will continue to rise due to limited supply and continued strong demand as Asian collectors become more affluent.

"As East and West get into more of a confluence in taste and in the market place, it will still go up," said Lo, a Cambridge-educated writer and jewelry designer, a slim, elegant woman famously known for wearing mis-matched designer shoes.

She is one of Hong Kong's leading art collectors -- her home is stacked with rare Chinese furniture, stone carvings and paintings, including an inkbrush panorama of the Grand Canyon by Chinese 20th century master Wu Guanzhong.

"These days art investment has entered into the mainstream of investment, especially for younger people. You cannot divorce love of the piece from what lies behind, the value of it."

Hong Kong has played a key role in Asia's art market boom. Its auction market turnover -- anchored by Sotheby's and Christie's -- skyrocketed 300 percent from 2009 to 2010, powered by a wave of Chinese millionaires buying art with avid fervor.

"Hong Kong has became the sales center of the world," said Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby's Asia, with revenue in the former British colony on par with New York and London.

Despite the art market's vulnerability to shocks, including the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse, when unrealistic estimates left scores of unsold lots amid tepid bidding even in the red-hot Chinese ceramics market, Asia's rapid wealth accumulation will likely see more and more money flow into art and alternative investments such as wine.   Continued...