The next generation of wealthy Chinese are revamping their shallow image and falling in love with art.
Lin Han paid $1m for the very first artwork he purchased. He was just 26-years-old at the time. The piece, by Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi, was on the cover of an art catalogue and he decided to buy it knowing he would draw attention from the media and the art world.
My life felt boring before. I collected bicycle badges and then cars.
Now, four years later, Lin is the proud owner and founder of M-Woods, a museum located in the trendy art district of Beijing.
A hand-picked selection of visitors admire a diverse range of work from an oil painting by Giorgio Morandi to an installation by Swedish artist Olafur Eliasson. In the main room there’s a Tang dynasty (618-907AD) sculpture along with a giant video projection by Dutch artist Guido van der Werve of 24 hours at the North Pole. Most of these works come from Lin Han’s private collection.
The young entrepreneur made his money after founding and managing a successful design-consultancy from his early twenties. He re-invested the profit from that business in stocks and real estate but he wasn’t happy.
“My life felt boring before,” said Lin. “I collected bicycle badges and then cars. But that was not enough to satisfy my imagination. Then two and half years ago, I started collecting art,” he told BBC Capital, having recently returned from a 10-day trip to Europe visiting foundations and museums. Within just a few years he has bought up more than 200 artworks. He earmarks $3m per year to purchase artworks but says he is always over budget.
Lin is part of a growing bunch of twenty-somethings, super-affluent Chinese who spend their ample wealth not on designer trainers and flashy brands but on sculpture, painting and installations.
Art changed the way I see things. Five years ago I was more on the surface.
China’s so-called fu er dai (second-generation rich kids) as they are called in China, have been coming under attack in the media and from the public over their inherited wealth, ostentatious lifestyle and perceived arrogance. Some are choosing to revamp the image that goes with their wealth. Many are better educated and more travelled than their parents so looking for different ways to use their high status in Chinese society.
“I am very privileged and want to give back to society” said Lin, adding the original idea behind his museum was to share his collection. The venue includes a free public space outside for performances and concerts.
“Art changed the way I see things. Five years ago I was more on the surface of things. Now I have more depth,” he added.
By the end of this year China will have 1.12 million people with wealth of at least $1.5m.
Most of the children of these new rich are well-educated, have extensively travelled overseas and come from wealthy backgrounds. By the end of this China will have 1.12 million people with wealth of at least 10 million yuan. ($1.5m), according to Forbes’ Chinese edition, and Beijing-based finance management firm Fu Hua Asset estimates.
Another art collector and gallery owner based in Beijing, Frank Lin, 41,studied Fine Arts in Australia before living in Canada for six years. His parents have an important art foundation in Taiwan. “When they wanted to open a branch in Beijing, it was obvious I would run it,” he said.
Lin Han says he expects to spend approximately $3m this year while Frank Lin expects to cash out $50,000-60,000. Meg Maggio, founder of Pékin Fine Arts, a contemporary Chinese art gallery, says the average Chinese buyer spends £10,000 ($14,000).
Their parents are busy making money while the children buy art. These are very well educated [buyers].
“There is definitely a new trend in China’s art collectors. The average age used to be 50 now it’s closer to 20”, said Rebecca Wei, Asia President for Christies. “Many of these are second generation coming into the market. In the past two to three years I’ve seen many new faces. There is a general passion for art coming from China.”
“Their parents are busy making money while their children buy art. These are very well educated [buyers], they’ve visited museums.”
According to Wei a number of factors are behind the trend this year. First of all, more and more Chinese are travelling overseas. Second, this new breed of collectors are more knowledgeable and rational in their choices: they buy what they like and aren’t just looking to art as an investment. And lastly the growing art scene in the region means galleries, auction houses and art institutions are springing up in Hong Kong and China, showcasing current and older masterpieces. “All of these are incubators for art collectors” Wei said.
“The Chinese collectors today are an eclectic crowd. They are a cross-section of all generations and all regions. The typical buyers is anyone who is comfortably middle class and who wants to enhance their quality of life. It’s an educational process,” Maggio added.
They mostly seek to diversify investment options, raise their public profile and learn more about their culture and the world around them through art. Unlike their older peers more focused on buying Chinese antiques, they don’t hesitate to buy outside China’s borders. They are more adventurous and daring in their choices. As a result modern and contemporary artworks from Western artists are entering the Chinese art market, previously dominated by Chinese antiques.
They are more adventurous and daring in their choices.
As their influence grows worldwide Chinese collectors are increasingly grabbing the headlines overseas. During Sotheby’s spring sale last year three Chinese buyers spent a total of $116m. Other examples include the purchase by Dalian Wanda Group of Monet’s “Bassin aux nympheas, les rosiers” for $29.9m.
Last year, according to the latest TEFAF art market report, the Chinese market totalled $11.6bn in sales. Though the figure is a significant 23% lower than in 2014, in part due to the economic slowdown, the Chinese art market still makes up 19% of the total, just behind the UK and the US.
This means more and Chinese buy overseas, travel to art fairs worldwide, while galleries and auction houses in China are showing more and more foreign artists on the mainland.
Today one third of Christies’ sales come from Asia, roughly $2bn, with one-third of that from mainland China, according to Wei, who anticipates stable sales from China this year.
Although the economic slowdown in China may be worrying equities investors, Chinese art collectors are still buying.
“The market is maturing very rapidly. It is now not so different than London or New York”, Maggio said, adding that her sales have been growing on par with the expansion of China’s middle class.