At Christie’s May 13 evening auction of postwar and contemporary art, the presence of Chinese buyers was palpable, even if many of them were not in the room. As the auction reached its pinnacle of $745 million—a record total for a single sale—Chinese buyers repeatedly won top-priced paintings, bidding via telephone as Xin Li, deputy chairwoman of Christie’s Asia, fielded their calls. By the end of the evening, Xin Li’s clients had won half of the top ten items, including Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards, a 1984 painting by Francis Bacon that sold for $80.8 million.
Until recently, Chinese collectors were not extremely interested in Western art, preferring to spend their millions on classical Chinese paintings, ceramics, and jade. But now a younger generation of Chinese collectors is coming to the fore—one that is better educated, savvy about Western art, and confident about building international collections. Although they may not be well known in New York, they are spending lavishly in galleries and auction houses in Beijing, Hong Kong, and around the world. With China maintaining a market share of 24 percent of $65.9 billion in worldwide art sales, placing it just behind the United States, according to a 2013 study by the European Fine Art Foundation, this generation is worth watching.
“Our sales have always been difficult to categorize because the Chinese are not one monolithic group,” says Ingrid Dudek, a specialist in Chinese contemporary art at Christie’s New York. “I see the younger collectors moving in, and they seem to be quite targeted in their choices, specific to their own collection’s focus rather than the Chinese art pantheon.” These days, she says, a young Chinese collector would be just as likely to show up at the contemporary-art department as at the Chinese-painting sales. “You wouldn’t say that they have eradicated their Chinese identity, but they are not necessarily limited by it anymore,” Dudek adds.
Sean Lu, 31, also known as Lu Xun, is already making a name for himself in China. In 2013, after a decade of delays, Lu and his father, real-estate developer Lu Jun, opened the Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing. Designed by American architect Steven Holl, the 20,000-square-foot museum serves as the centerpiece of a collection of 24 buildings on a scenic site in the Laoshan National Forest Park, including a conference center by Arata Isozaki, a recreation center by Ettore Sottsass, a hotel by Liu Jiakun, and residences by David Adjaye, Alberto Kalach, and Ai Weiwei, among others. The project, called China International Practical Exhibition of Architecture, or CIPEA, cost the Lus more than $164 million.
“This younger generation of Chinese collectors is much more aware of what’s going on in the world and more open -minded,” says gallerist Christophe W. Mao of Chambers Fine Art in New York and Beijing. “They are not just looking at Chinese artists; they look at art as more globalized.” Mao has been taking Chinese collectors to Art Basel in Switzerland and to museums in New York to educate them on the scope of international art and ways of building a collection. “It’s not like a Western collector who starts going to museums in elementary school and grows up with this knowledge,” he says. “When you grow up in China, the art education is very limited, not just Western art, but Chinese art as well. They have a lot to do to catch up.”
A case study of how quickly a young Chinese collector can catch up is that of Lin Han, 28. A year ago, he had not yet made his first purchase. Now he is opening a museum in the middle of Beijing’s 798 Art Zone to showcase his collection of more than 200 artworks. His inaugural exhibition this month in the nearly 10,000-square-foot space highlights some of his recent purchases of works by artists such as Tracey Emin, Kader Attia, and Odani Motohiko, as well as top Chinese moneymakers Zeng Fanzhi and Chen Fei.
“When I started, I wanted to buy many artists, but the gallery owners don’t know who I am, so they all said, ‘We have nothing to sell you,’ ” says Lin, the son of investors, who attended secondary school in Singapore before getting a degree in animation design from Northumbria University in the U.K. Lin now runs a public-relations firm for luxury brands. “I made the decision that I needed to buy a famous artist at auction so people would know my name,” he says. In November 2013, he spent $5 million at a Hong Kong sale for a painting by Zeng Fanzhi, the most expensive Chinese contemporary artist. The strategy worked. Soon galleries like White Cube, ShanghART, and SCAI The Bathhouse were welcoming him in. “It’s like a war,” Lin Han says. “Before the war, you play military music to encourage people and make a sound. I made a sound to let people know I am here.”
Leo Xu, a dealer in Shanghai who, at 31, is just a bit older than his youngest clients, sees the new generation as more individualistic. “Some of the younger generation started with their family, immersed in art from a young age. Some started with Chinese ink painting. Some studied abroad and have seen modern art from all over the world,” he says. But, he emphasizes, this generation seeks out works that speak to them as a generation that grew up with the Internet and globalization. New media, for example, appeals to them, Xu says, pointing out that Cheng Ran, a young video artist he represents, has been particularly successful with these collectors.
Second-generation collector Chong Zhou, 25, compares his method of collecting with that of his parents, who run a large pharmaceutical company. “They bought on instinct,” he says, “and later, when the market took off, on investment.” But, with a degree in art history from UCLA, Zhou is more concerned with research and education. His first major purchase was in 2010, a self-portrait by Yayoi Kusama, bought from a Tokyo gallery. Now he owns more than 100 works, by heavy hitters such as Zeng Fanzhi, Yoshitomo Nara, and Yang Fudong. Today, however, he is concentrating on China’s younger artists, born post-1975, such as Qiu Xiaofei, Sun Xun, and Shi Zhiying. Instead of a museum to house his collection, he has opened a restaurant, Macasa, in Shanghai, featuring rotating shows.
“To me collecting is more of a hobby, rather than a career,” Shi says. “I haven’t thought about opening a museum, though I’d be happy to see leading museums, like MoMA or the Pompidou, open up in China.”
For the moment, though, Shi’s collection of Chinese contemporary artists is more impressive than his international finds. He has focused on contemporary ink painting by artists such as Xu Lei, Hao Liang, Huang Dan, and Pan Wenxun. He has also begun looking at young Chinese artists, such as abstract painter Wang Guangle and master watercolor painter Guo Hongwei. “My collection is a reflection of my taste, my childhood experience, my ideal life, and my philosophical and religious views and beliefs,” the collector says. “I am a sincere Buddhist, so the prayer hands by Hang Chunhui caught my eyes when I first saw it. I like nature, so I put the landscape painting by Sisley right at the entrance of my home. I am very into the Daoist thoughts of emptiness and flow, and contemporary ink artworks inherit this tradition.”
If Shi Jian is sincere and earnest in his collecting approach, David Chau and his wife, Kelly Ying, are quintessential Shanghai sophisticates. Chau, known as Zhou Dawei in China, is 29 years old but is already involved in almost every level of the market. He is the backer of two galleries: Leo Xu’s and Simon Wang’s Antenna Space. He is also the financial backbone of Shanghai’s newest art fair, Art021, which attracted White Cube and Galerie Perrotin in its first year, along with leading mainland galleries such as Long March Space, ShanghART, and James Cohan Shanghai. The fair’s official organizers are Ying, who owns Aether Art Space in Beijing, and Bao Yifeng, a managing partner of the public-relations firm Liquid Element. He has also been building his own collection, named the C.C. Foundation, since 2004.
“If I lived in the United States or Europe, my main focus could be collecting,” says Chau. “But here in China, if I’m not helping out galleries and supporting an art fair, who would do it?” He admits that many observers might view his various activities as a conflict of interest. But he insists he makes his living from his fleet-management company, not from his art ventures, on which he estimates he has spent more than $1.5 million. In any case, he believes the benefits to China are worth the risk to his reputation. “China doesn’t need more art museums. China needs a mature art system, and guys like me help form that system,” he says.
When he returned to China in 2003, he served as gallery director of Hwas Gallery for five years, during which time he began acquiring works by early 20th-century Shanghai modernist painters, an underappreciated segment of the market. By 2009, he owned more than 300 works by these artists, many of which he has since sold as he’s honed his collection to focus on contemporary art.
Today, the foundations of his collection are works by three young Chinese artists—Liu Wei, Xu Zhen, and Yang Fudong—all of whom have representation in New York and have been shown internationally. He also has an extensive collection of video art and is perhaps the largest collector of Chinese coins, specializing in those from the Qing dynasty and Republic era. “They are rare, very rare, but to me they are historically important from a period when China was defining its own modernism, just as painters in my modernist collection did,” he says.
Lu Xun, Shi Jian, Lin Han, and David Chau may just represent only an early stage of collecting activity in a country with close to a million millionaires, half under the age of 40. As Hong Kong is rapidly maturing—with Art Basel Hong Kong, Gagosian and White Cube opening spaces there, and the M+ museum soon to be inaugurated—these newly minted millionaires are learning how the international art market works closer to home.
“I am absolutely optimistic about this group of collectors,” says Mao, who has watched this market develop over the past decade. “They are the new blood of collecting in China, and they are more open-minded.”
Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 88 under the title “Young and Worldly.”