New York auctions paint somber picture of Chinese art buyers

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Along with oil, stocks and steel, China’s roiling economic slowdown has deflated the buoyancy of another sector: the Asian Art market.

Wealthy Chinese art collectors had driven art sales skyward in recent years for Chinese and Western art, such as the Modigliani nude that was bought by an anonymous Chinese buyer last year for $170.4 million, the second highest price ever paid at auction.

But at New York's Asia Week, 10 days of auctions and gallery tours held in mid-March that are considered a barometer for the Asian art market, Sotheby's BID.N reported that aggregate sales slumped to the lowest since 2013.

Christie’s International reported sales of $37 million, less than a quarter of the $161 million sold during the same week in 2015, and a handful of auctions at both houses failed to sell 30-40 percent of pieces, according to press releases.

“Things were in a heated upward spiral for some time and there’s no question it has come off the boil,” said John Berwald, whose London-based gallery, Berwald Oriental Art, sold one of the eight pieces of late 17th century Chinese porcelain it exhibited during Asia Week.

Art Week’s sales last year surged in part because of demand for a rare private collection sold by Christie’s. However, the dip in this year’s sales mirror a global trend.

The Chinese art market domestically fell 23 percent in 2015 to around $11.8 billion, with art sales falling 7 percent worldwide, according to the 2016 TEFAF Art Market Report, published by the Dublin-based research and consulting firm Arts Economics.

Chinese art collectors command 19 percent of the art market, and auction sales for perennial favorites like Chinese classical paintings and calligraphy sold well despite the downward trend, said Jonathan Stone, Christie’s chairman and international head of Asian Art. “There isn’t a shortage of buyers” for prized items, Stone said.

But buyers sat on their hands during auctions for less mainstream art like snuff bottles, some ceramics and furniture.

Tighter budgets, even for billionaires, made Chinese buyers more selective, said James Lally, whose New York gallery J. J. Lally & Co. exhibited 75 pieces of Chinese jade.

Lally sold about 80 percent of the jade collection, with buyers from China purchasing about 40 percent of the items, including a jade necklace from the Zhou Dynasty that went for a sum in the low six figures.

“It’s come back down to Earth,” said Lally. “After two to three decades of euphoria, we have a much more mature market where people are indeed more price-sensitive.”

Reporting by Elizabeth Dilts; Editing by Sandra Maler