Saturday, April 01, 2006

Why Has Asian Art Become Such a Hot Commodity?

Has Asian Art arrived as a hot collectible category?

If Asian Week, a period when New York art auction houses sell Far East pieces, is indicative, the answer is, "Yes." According to Art Info, the houses have so many sales during this seven-day period that no afficionado could possibly attend all of them. Christie's compiled seven sale catalogues, while Sotheby's put together four.

This morning's New York Times reported on a Sotheby sale held yesterday which brought in about $13.2-million, including "$979,200, more than twice Sotheby's high estimate of $350,000" for Bloodline Series: Comrade No. 120. The Times reports that total sales for that one auction exceeded high estimates by more than $5-million.

What's going on? Why has Asian art, especially Chinese art, become such a hot category? Well, for one thing, the art collecting world, as usual, seems to be catching up with everybody else.

Back in 1972, after Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China, the country became the fawning object of attention by mass culture in this country.

Diplomatically, China was a hot commodity for the US and other democracies as a counterbalance to the Soviet Union.

Throughout the 80s, China was a chic tourist destination, not just for America's and Europe's wealthy, but also for our middle classes.

And of course, western business communities savor the mass market and the cheaper labor China can provide.

But interest by western art collectors has apparently taken some time to build to the crescendo we now see.

One reason for that is that collecting is a bit faddish. It's been my observation that people collect art for a variety of reasons. Often a single individual buys art both out of love and as an investment. When fads or trends develop, collectors, whether motivated by love, money, or both, jump on board.

The art world's love of Asian art is the high-toned after-effect of a love for Asia that started in the rest of the western world about thirty years ago and has included everything from long lines for martial arts movies to the multiplication of Chinese, Thai, and other Asian-cuisined restaurants.

Because collectors must be cautious about how they spend massive sums of money and if they are investing, take care in how they spend those sums, art collecting isn't a leading cultural indicator; it's an echo of trends that have already established themselves.

Lower and middle income people almost always drive the directions of cultures. For example, rock music, variations on which can be heard today in Broadway theaters and symphony concert halls, began among lower-income white and black folks in the American South. Rap music started on the streets of Washington, D.C. and New York; today, Will Smith, Ice Cube, and others are major stars and rap is mainstream. Country music has undergone a similar odyssey.

It's always been this way. Those with less money find inexpensive ways to reflect on their lives and to entertain each other. Later, those with money to throw around, baptize and legitimize their artistic expressions with money and street cred.

My guess is that given the development of India, the new American friendliness with that country signaled by President Bush's recent exemption of India from adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the increasing popularity of Bollywood films, and the growing presence of Indian restaurants, that in about twenty years, Western art collectors will be paying the kinds of money for Indian art that we're seeing them pay for Chinese and other Asian works of art today.


Deborah White said...

Wow...that was a fascinating post. Thanks, Mark.

Many of America's great 20th century artists and artisans were heavily influenced by Asian art, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Georgia O'Keeffe.

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for your comments!

You're right about Wright and O'Keefe. No doubt their work has whetted collectors' interests in Asian art, too.

God bless. Have a good weekend, Deborah!