How Beijing’s art market is being transformed by young collectors, helping city step out of Shanghai’s shadow

And only seven lots were valued at more than 10 million yuan, all consigned to China Guardian.

Cuppar achieved total sales of 89.7 million yuan from its combined 20th century and contemporary evening auctions in Beijing, during this year’s spring auction season. Photo: Cuppar

With China’s economic woes continuing and the global art market depressed, collectors are less willing to part with their best pieces right now.

Still, the auction results could have been worse, art market experts say.

With more subdued expectations this year, the results exceeded expectations, so everyone was pleasantly surprised

Stacie Xie Yang, Cuppar’s co-founder and managing director

“Although the market has declined, there was robust participation and high spirits within the auction halls,” says Xu Xiaogeng, former dean of the Central China Normal University’s art college.

“The atmosphere is better than last year. You can feel it in the rooms. Collectors are still eager to buy exceptional works, but it is challenging for auction houses as they are getting fewer top quality pieces.”

Just two years ago, China Guardian sold the same painting for 17.2 million yuan.

“We used to joke that a sale with fewer than 10 eight-figure pieces would be a disappointment,” says Cuppar’s co-founder and managing director, Stacie Xie Yang. “But with more subdued expectations this year, the results exceeded expectations, so everyone was pleasantly surprised.”

Zhang Enli’s Eating No. 4 (2000) sold for 21.2 million yuan this year, setting a record for the Chinese artist’s work. Photo: China Guardian

The Chinese capital’s art market is undergoing an interesting shift after years of being in the shadow of Shanghai with its well-established art fairs and well-known private museums.

Ahead of this year’s Gallery Weekend Beijing, which begins with art fairs and exhibitions on May 24, the relatively more transparent public auctions are useful in revealing two major changes in the market.

First, new, young collectors are emerging. Second, judicious use of social media can really pay off for art sellers.

Xie, who has worked in the industry for over 15 years, says that collectors who were once concentrated in megacities like Beijing and Shanghai are now emerging from cities such as Suzhou and Hangzhou, with a significant contingent from the southern tech hub of Shenzhen.

These new entrants, some still in their early twenties, are a stark contrast to the previous generation. Unlike the real estate or coal magnates of the past, their wealth stems from the tech sector, particularly gaming, semiconductors and green energy.

This changing demographic is causing a shift in buying motivations. Previously dominated by investment-driven acquisitions, the market now sees a growing emphasis on personal connection, especially in the 500,000 yuan to 5 million yuan price range, Xie says.

To capture this market, Xie started posting short videos on social media two months ago, sharing her daily work as an auctioneer. One video that quickly went viral was a Q&A with collectors, amassing more than 100,000 views on Cuppar’s WeChat video channel alone.
Stacie Xie Yang, co-founder and managing director of Cuppar, has used social media to capture a new market made up of younger collectors from the tech sector. Photo: courtesy of Cuppar

This paid off handsomely. “My WeChat video channel gained more subscribers in two months than our official WeChat account in four years!” she says. “Three new collectors from Hong Kong and Canada, completely unknown to us before, participated in the auction after discovering us online.”

In 2023, Cuppar also collaborated with the art investor turned influencer Huang Yu, inviting 48 members of his private club to the auction preview.

Yu’s influence translated into immediate action – a dozen attendees registered to bid, and some even secured works, breaking artist records in the process. This year, Yu gave his members a tour of China Guardian’s preview.

Art collecting is no longer the exclusive domain of the ultra-wealthy, Xu says. The democratisation of the art market is exemplified by China Guardian’s contemporary day-auction strategy: no more reserve prices, he says.

The move, introduced for its day sales in 2023, created a lot of buzz online for China Guardian. Emerging artists took to social media to celebrate successful sales of their works, with prices as high as hundreds of thousand yuan paid, while a well-known curator shared on WeChat his delight at acquiring a piece from an artist he had previously researched and exhibited.

Other industry insiders, accustomed to much higher sales in past economic booms, say privately that the auctions were a morale booster amid ongoing economic challenges.

As traditional investment options such as real estate and stocks become less attractive, people are increasingly viewing art as an alternative investment, and a market correction over the past two years has made prices more accessible, they say.

A Wisp of Smoke (1995), by Wei Qimei, struck a chord with younger collectors by conjuring up childhood memories. Photo: courtesy of Cuppar

New collectors are not just interested in what is new. Young collectors, for example, were drawn to a work Cuppar offered by the late realist oil painter Wei Qimei. A Wisp of Smoke (1995) shows smoke coming out of the chimney of a simple cottage.

“It’s a heartwarming work that captures a simple thatched cottage,” Xie says, “and when I had conversations with several collectors – newcomers to the auction scene – they all mentioned this particular painting. It struck a chord with them as it conjured up fond memories of their childhood homes and moments spent with their grannies.”

The work sold for 713,000 yuan, exceeding its low estimate by 55 per cent.


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