Chinese collectors with cash to burn dominated Paris auctions in December, displaying a ravenous appetite for pieces from the country’s imperial days with a focus as much on investment as nostalgia.
Hotel Drouot, one of the French capital’s top auction halls, recorded its top sale of the year on Dec. 14 when an 18th-century Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) vase sold for €5.5 million ($7.2 million).
The porcelain vase with the imperial mark of Yongzheng (1723-1735) had been used as a lampstand and the owners had no inkling of its true worth. It had been valued at between one million to €1.5 million, but a Chinese collector in the auction hall walked away with the piece far above this price.
Christie’s France sold a jade brush pot from the Qing Dynasty for €3.3 million, a record for the type of object and well over the valuation of €150,000 to 200,000.
At Sotheby’s, a Hong Kong dealer picked up a porcelain Buddha from the reign of Qianlong (1736-1795) for €589,000— more than ten times the estimated price.
Nor are Asian dealers and collectors content with conducting their business by telephone bid. More often than not in Parisian auction halls, a clutch of Asian bidders can be seen, catalogues in hand.
At Hotel Drouot on Dec.15, a group of about 15 Asian buyers attended a sale of furniture and curiosities by the Camard house.
A Qing-dynasty Ruyi scepter, with ornate wooden carvings with a Buddhist motif, was the subject of a heated bidding war. Initially estimated at up to $8,000, the winning bidder paid €64,000, before being applauded heartily by his compatriots.
"The Chinese are hungry for art works from their country, which the Cultural Revolution denied them," said Francois de Ricqles, the president of Christie’s France.
The Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 until Chairman Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, witnessed a massive campaign of destruction of China’s heritage.
At a Dec. 15 art auction by Christie’s France, mainland Chinese accounted for 35 percent of bidders and 75 percent of value. Hong Kong bidders recorded 9 percent of sales, and Taiwanese 2.5 percent.
Three years ago, Sotheby’s France did not organize any Asian art auctions in Paris: but now it is its third biggest business, with sales of €25.9 million in 2010.
"There are lots of Asian objects in Europe. In the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a real taste for this type of art," said Guillaume Cerutti, the head of Sotheby’s France.
The appeal of Asian heritage in Europe is its authenticity, with forgery a major problem in domestic markets, said Mathilde Courteault, the head of Asian art for Christie’s France.
"When the provenance of the object is impeccable, when it has stayed in the same family for decades, this has a strong appeal," she said.
"This is the guarantee that it is authentic," Courteault said.
According to an Asian art expert, who would not be named, Chinese buyers are moved by more than merely nostalgia.
"For Chinese buyers, art is an investment. They are not doing this to reclaim their heritage," said the expert, who noted that Chinese museums were not involved in acquisitions.