September 9, 2011 / 11:29 PM / 9 years ago

From Picasso to Elvis, Chinese buy up Western culture

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The art world shook last February when a report by The European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF) revealed that China had overtaken the United Kingdom to become the world’s second largest art market.

An employee poses with artist Pablo Picasso's "Femme Lisant (Deux Personnages)" at Sotheby's auction house in London April 14, 2011. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

The art world shook again weeks later when Artprice, the industry’s final word on such matters, announced that upon its review, China topped the United States as the No. 1 market.

What are Chinese investors buying?

Everything from Pablo Picasso’s “Femme Lisant (Deux Personnages),” for $21.3 million, to exclusive rights to Elvis Presley’s earliest known live recordings, which will hit the auction block Oct. 22, in Hong Kong.

In a country where only 60 years ago there was no such thing as an art market, the appetite for fine arts, antiquities and good old-fashioned, Hollywood-type memorabilia is big.

China’s disposable income has multiplied 10-fold in the past 20 years, according to the China-based Hurun’s list of the rich individuals. The annual study shows 64 percent growth in average wealth over the past two years, 400-500 billionaires (the world’s most), and close to a million millionaires — average age, 39.

“More and more (investor) money is sitting on the sidelines and looking for a place to go,” says Jeff Rabin of ArtVest Partners, a firm specializing in art investments. With financial markets experiencing so much volatility, arts and memorabilia increasingly seem like viable investments.

In the past two years alone, auction house Christies has increased partnerships in Hong Kong from 95 to 130, all of them Chinese. In addition, the venerable auctioneer is placing native Mandarin speakers in their showrooms in London, New York, Geneva and Paris.


The rising level of wealth in China has begun to trickle from major cities to outlying areas, though the vast majority of the nation’s 1.3 billion still live in poverty.

“It sort of breaks down to those people who are quite wealthy and know something about art to those who are really more farmers or industrialists and don’t have the knowledge or the access to understand the art market,” said Rabin.

But even the people who may not understand high-value art and antiquities, have a place at auction houses when the hammer comes down, in particular, for Western celebrity memorabilia.

Darren Julien of Beverly Hills’ Julien’s Auctions is currently planning his “Legends” event next month in Macau. Items will include the rights to a 1955 Elvis concert as well as a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe, Madonna’s gold bustier and a note signed by John Lennon.

“One person told me that they would rather have this than a Monet,” said Julien, who bases a third of his business in the Asian market. He recently put a basketball up for auction signed by Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan. The estimated value was about $500. It sold for $294,000.

Part of the appetite for western items is due to the fact that most all of China has been cut off from western culture for so long, yet the best of the world’s performing arts were coming from U.S. and European music, movies and television.

“The real good films were the American films. It was the only view they had of another life outside their own,” said Julien. “When you’re buying these things, you’re buying a memory.”

Never mind that art and memorabilia markets remain unregulated and opaque and purchases are sometimes ill-liquid in aftermarkets once the items have been acquired.

“If people really want something,” said Julien, “they’re going to do whatever it takes to get it.”

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

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