Carson Guo was a 17-year-old with a fondness for urban streetwear when he set out to join the art world’s big leagues. His father de el, an executive at a major Chinese conglomerate, collected modern masters like Picasso—but the younger Mr. Guo felt ready to collect on his own. One day during his school lunch break, he placed the winning, $800,000 bid for a set of 248 Supreme skateboard decks at Sotheby’s.
The fact that a teenager won shocked Sotheby’s executive Patti Wong three years ago—but today she said she studies the differing art tastes of father and are. “These young collectors grew up going to art fairs and auctions, and they’re digitally savvy and well-informed,” Ms. Wong said. “They’re discovering new artists and finding even artists the older generation overlooked.”
This week as New York’s chief auction houses kick off a two-week series of spring sales that will aim to sell off $2 billion worth of art, young collectors half-a-world away in China are poised to set the pace as they compete remotely for everything from high-end watches to dinosaur artifacts to Andy Warhol.
Mr. Guo is part of this latest wave of savvy, Chinese collectors to join the art world’s upper echelons. These newcomers are young, often educated in the West and flush from self-made or family fortunes in banking, tech or real-estate. Plenty in this cohort under the age of 40 started small by bidding online during the pandemic, but auction houses say they are starting to stretch for bigger-ticket items and reshaping global tastes to match their own. As a result, the houses are hustling to alter their offerings to suit, from high-end watches and handbags to collectible sneakers and edgy art.
Since pandemic-related lockdowns prevented some houses like Phillips from shipping preview highlights of their upcoming sales to Hong Kong or Shanghai, the house said it instead arranged video chats and sent virtual-reality videos to potential bidders there.
It is unknown how collectors in Hong Kong or mainland China will react if China’s government follows through with plans to pause its recent crackdown of tech companies, which had included plans to limit the time young people could spend on their mobile phones.
Dealers say the newer influx entering the art market wants to show off their cultured lifestyle on social media and beyond, and they’re hitting the art market in droves. Sotheby’s said it’s selling art to at least 4,000 Asian collectors under the age of 40 now, twice as many as three years ago.
Buoyed in part by their ebullience, overall art sales last year in China grew 35% to $13.4 billion, according to an art-market report published by the Swiss fair Art Basel and UBS two months ago.
David Chau, a 37-year-old Shanghai collector and founder of that city’s Art021 fair, is arguably an elder statesman of the millennial set. Mr. Chau started trading sports cards and comic books after his parents sent him to a Canadian boarding school at age 9. By the time he was a college freshman in Vancouver, he was buying $2,000 works on paper by Dayu Wu, a 1920s predecessor of modern master Zou Wou-Ki who has since enjoyed his own market arises.
Mr. Chau said he later reaped a tiny sum reselling his early buys, and he said he sees the same speculative energy among China’s up-and-comer collectors today. (He said he no longer sells art from his collection of him, now part of his art-funding CC Foundation.)
“Younger collectors get their information from social media, but they work hard and they’re working harder now at collecting,” he said.
Consider Yayoi Kusama, the Japanese artist known for painting polka dots on pumpkins and creating immersive, mirrored rooms filled with sparkly lights. Ms. Wong at Sotheby’s said millennials in mainland China and Hong Kong recently spotted a chance to score bargains by pivoting away from the pumpkins to instead buy Kusama’s older, “Infinity Net” paintings from the late 1950s. Four years ago, the going rate for a “Net” painting from 1959 was under $6 million. Now, such pieces have sold for as much as $8 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, according to auction database Artnet.
Over the past two years in Hong Kong, fashion-marketing entrepreneur and collector Federico Tan said he’s watched local collectors line up to buy paintings of playful characters by several Spanish artists at galleries and auctions in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Today, some of these artists such as Javier Calleja and Edgar Plans are international art stars, selling for as much as $1.5 million and $690,000 at auction, respectively. In 2019, auction houses in mainland China were selling Mr. Calleja’s pieces for around $30,000, the same amount Mr. Plans’ works were selling for in the fall of 2020. Mr. Tan sees the same tastemaker set aligning now around Hong Kong’s own Kasing Lung, known for drawing monster-like characters.
“It feels like almost every day, I hear about another young artist about to blow up,” Mr. Tan said, “and people here in Hong Kong are fueled by the FOMO,” or the fear of missing out.
The fact that global collectors could be taking their art-buying cues from collectors in Hong Kong marks a major departure from 15 years ago, when New York tastes ruled the global art stage and auction houses often sent has-been Western art to Hong Kong. Yet Justin Sun, the 31-year-old creator of the Tron cryptocurrency exchange, said he is as intrigued by recent art-school graduates as he is by the $78.4 million Alberto Giacometti “Nose” sculpture he won at Sotheby’s last fall. Taking note, auction houses now take potential art stars to Hong Kong and Shanghai to see how they fare early on.
Last week during Sotheby’s Hong Kong spring sales, which sold $496 million in art, Asian millennials and Gen-Z collectors, or people under 30, accounted for a third of the bids, the house said. Phillips held a “New Now” sale in London around the same time in which millennials from mainland China and Hong Kong won pieces by emerging artists Georgia Dymock, Caleb Hahne and Tala Madani.
“The young collectors here have a ton of purchasing power, and they’re rejecting their parents’ tastes because they trust their own,” said Jonathan Crockett, Asia chairman at Phillips.
Other collecting categories already enjoying a measure of Chinese tastemaker approval: Watches by FP Journe and Patek Philippe, Hermès handbags, vintage cigars, first-edition books, wine and toy figurines.
Mark Cho, a 38-year-old collector who splits his time between Hong Kong, London and New York, said plenty of his friends in China started collecting art during the pandemic while they were stuck at home. “They’ve only known an upwardly trending market, so they’re fearless,” said Mr. Cho, who runs a men’s boutique clothing store there called The Armoury.
Mr. Cho began collecting photography and watches in his early 20s as a solitary pursuit, but last year he started a Hong Kong watch-collecting group in part so that he could meet others like him. Around 20 people now regularly show up at his friend’s private club space in the city to talk timepieces. Mr. Cho said he’ll typically turn up wearing one of his Patek models from the 1930s and 1940s. Such models sync with his tweedy style.
“Watches are a good conversation starter,” he said. “I’m done talking about the weather.”
Jaclyn Li, a 24-year-old native of Harbin in northern China currently studying economics and psychology at Harvard, said collecting runs in her family. Growing up, she watched as her grandfather de ella collected stamps and scroll paintings while her father de ella collected old Jeeps and Zippo lighters. As a teenager, Ms. Li started collecting sneakers, at one point paying $3,000 for a pair of Nike SB Paris Dunk Lows that she said are now worth about $100,000.
Last fall, Ms. Li paid nearly $500,000 for an FP Journe watch at Phillips Hong Kong, part of a collection of 30 high-end watches she’s amassed over the past two years, mainly vintage Cartier and Patek. “I have this one Patek watch from 1926,” she said, “and though I don’t know the original owner, I like to imagine what it survived so I can wear it. This hobby is very emotional for me.”
Lung Lung Thun, a 32-year-old who oversees her own securities brokerage in Hong Kong, last year started a podcast for watch collectors called “The Waiting List” with Ms. Li and another collector, Daniel Sum. Mr. Sum is known for starting the Shanghai Watch Gang, a popular community group for watch fans whose Instagram brims with watches on wrists.Ms. Thun said she can’t compete with the heavyweight collectors who buy wall-sized works by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Because of the smaller size of some apartments in cities like Hong Kong, she said collectors often stick to buying physically small items like watches, jewelry, books and handbags. Even video games appeal as a collectible. “Anything they can show off outside their home is more popular,” she said, for now.
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