How China's art collectors became the world's big spenders

We look at some of the standout purchases by China's enthusiastic buyers

As the country’s wealth has increased exponentially over the past three decades, Chinese buyers have come to dominate the international art market. Individual collectors have been snapping up both imperial works at home and modern pieces by global stars with a seemingly insatiable appetite for art.

‘For Chinese buyers, purchasing art is a way to show wealth, power and sophistication, in the same way as Western buyers and collectors,’ says Mark Slaats, art consultant at Littleton & Hennessy Asian Art, an acquisition agency based in London and New York. ‘However, it is often also an investment, used to speculate on a potential increase in the value of the work of art.’

It’s no surprise then, that Chinese buyers have been setting records at auction houses throughout the world in the past few years. Although Slaats says there has ‘definitely been a slow down in the art market recently’ and buyers are showing a little more reserve thanks to the general economic picture here, he predicts that this is only a temporary blip. As records continue to be broken, it seems that Chinese big-ticket art buyers are here to stay. Here are some of the most significant art purchases by Chinese buyers since the beginning of this decade:

Amedeo Modigliani’s ‘Nude Woman’

Liu Yiqian, a former taxi driver turned billionaire, bought ‘Nude Woman’ (pictured above) for 170.4 million USD (1.1 billion RMB) at Christie’s late last year, making it the second most expensive artwork ever purchased at auction.

Liu has said he plans to bring the artwork to Shanghai, where eager art fans can hope to see it in one of the Long Museums, which Liu founded together with wife Wang Wei. Liu has made quite a name for himself in the art world, buying a 600-year-old imperial Tibetan tapestry for 45 million USD in 2014, and infamously, a porcelain wine cup made for the Chenghua Emperor for 36 million USD – then posting pictures of himself drinking tea from it on social media.

Reportedly, he pays for his art purchases on an American Express card, to maximise his reward points. Sounds sensible.

18th century porcelain vase made for emperor Qianlong

In 2011, Wang Yaohui, chairman of Zhonghui Guohua Industrial Ltd, bought an exquisite Qing dynasty porcelain vase for 51.6 million GBP (483.6 million RMB) after it was discovered during a routine house clearance in London. The elaborate vase, purportedly made for emperor Qianlong, was sold for more than 50 times the presale estimate and broke the record for an Asian work of art offered at auction. Experts said it probably once belonged to Chinese royalty but was most likely taken out of the country at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860.

However, confusion reigned when the auction house failed to receive payment for the vase. After two years, the vase was re-sold to another Chinese purchaser in a private deal brokered by Bonham’s and believed to be worth around 25 million GBP. Probably still enough for a comfortable retirement for the couple who discovered it in their loft.

Van Gogh’s ‘Still Life, Vase with Daisies and Poppies’

"bidspenders2"Chinese media mogul Wang Zhongjun, who counts film group Huayi Brothers among his holdings, bought Van Gogh’s 1890 painting ‘Still Life, Vase with Daisies and Poppies’ at auction from Sotheby’s New York in November 2014.

The painting, which depicts a vase of daises and a splash of vibrant red poppies, sold for 61.8 million USD (406.5 million RMB), well above its pre-sale estimate of 50 million USD. One of the few works he would sell in his lifetime, Van Gogh painted the still life in June 1890 after his stay at the asylum at St-Rémy, a highly creative period for artist.

Weibo users were largely unimpressed at the amount spent, with one criticising the waste of investors’ money, and another declaring: ‘One madman buying a painting by another madman.’

Picasso’s ‘Claude et Paloma’

One of China’s richest men, Wang Jianlin, of the Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda, bought Picasso’s ‘Claude et Paloma’ for 28 million USD (184 million RMB) last November from Christie’s. That sale also rose well above its 12 million USD pre-sale estimate. The 1950 painting depicts Picasso’s three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter and is said to have been one of the artist’s favourite pictures.

This purchase was the first step in Wanda’s plan to widen its collection of Western masterpieces – the business already has an impressive collection of works by modern Chinese artists, including Wu Guanzhong, Shi Qi and Li Keran.

Feng Ning’s ‘A Glance of Nanjing City’


This 10-metre long scroll was sold by Hong Kong auction house Poly Auction in October 2015. The work, which depicts in great detail what life on the street looked like more than 1,000 years ago, was commissioned by Qing emperor Qianlong, who ordered court artists to make copies of a Song dynasty original that is now lost.

The piece was reportedly bought by an entrepreneur and art collector from Nanjing, for 51.9 million HKD (43.7 million RMB), setting a record for ancient Chinese paintings sold in Hong Kong. The auction proved that there is still a lot of interest in Chinese imperial artworks.