Hugo Weihe is Christie’s International Director of Asian Art. He is responsible for a broad range of time periods, collecting fields and regions. Art Market Monitor sat down with him shortly after the New York’s Asian Art Week to get his sense of the field and its direction.
How did you feel about Asia Week in general?
Asia Week, overall, was very strong, in particular because Chinese art did extremely well this time; the reason being that we had an exceptional collection from Arthur M. Sackler with lots of very desirable pieces in it that were collected in the Seventies and Eighties with a very important name attached to it; and very, very reasonably estimated, very conservative, and that was desirable.
What was important to see is that there were a lot of mainland buyers now sitting in the room and buying these things back. The notion has been, or still is, that imperial pieces are of particular interest for Chinese buyers–to get them back.
But what happened now is that also archaic jades and material that isn’t technically imperial is now being acquired.
In the Sackler sale, there were some sales with huge multiples of very low– 5, 10, 20 thousand dollar–estimates, with sales in the $150-200 thousand range. Is that just the presence of those mainland buyers?
Yes, plus, of course, American. All the traditional collectors in America and Europe are still there. They are highly educated, highly cultivated, and have always been there. They’re always there.
The mainland buyers is a new thing. What is important from a Chinese perspective, is to be able to buy things with great provenance from Western collections. The buyer is assured that they’re going to be OK, the pieces are real.
In China, sometimes things are copied or imitated. So they know there’s a level of difficulty buying domestically. From a renowned Western collection, there is an added level of security that provenance provides.
Provenance, obviously, of quality, is a big thing. Pricing is now important from an auction house perspective to get the estimates as conservative as possible. We can’t always do that when a private collector says, “I’m not going to let it go for less,” We’re in a limbo there in terms of the market sort of sorting itself out. Japanese art, Korean art, both were a little bit more difficult.
We don’t have quite the same buyer potential in Japan, and that’s been like that for a while now. So in Japanese art, we depend on collectors elsewhere.
You don’t have the same potential because the Japanese are not spending money on these kinds of objects?
They have definitely been holding back for economic reasons for some time, really.
But Japan also has a very clearly defined way of characterizing or classifying its cultural heritage, so the top level, by definition, cannot leave the country. They’re very, very reasonable. It’s the best model, actually, to follow for other countries, too, because they’re very reasonable with an A or B-plus things to leave, they make it very easy.
Ideally, we need to source things that left Japan a long time ago and find them. The great collectors are holding on to things, too, so it’s difficult to get…when we have something fantastic like that Buddha last season, it did over $20 million.
That can always happen with a great work of art, so that’s the great news. Even Indian and classical modern was a little bit thinner on the ground this time, which surprised me, because we had very good material, frankly. In some ways, we’re trying to tell the market: “Don’t think that these things are easy to come by, it’s kind of misleading if one puts together a nice sale every time, that people think it’s readily available.”
Do you have a problem with educating the market?
I don’t have a problem with that, but we obviously have to do that more. Because that has to sink in, in a sense. These things are extremely rare, and we know, because we go everywhere and source it. We really have a good insight.
I know how thin it is on the ground, and I know how difficult it is to get things with a great history attached to them, with a provenance that goes pre-1970. That will be more important and will add greater and greater value in the future.
Are institutions having difficulty making decisions about something because there is not a strong enough private collector base?
Yeah, it’s a combination of these things. We had another case of an important stone sculpture. A museum specifically wanted it, but said, “We don’t have the money to buy it, we’re looking for a donor to try to get it, but even that’s being difficult.”
But then they did come up with one. So that was gratifying to see, and they got a great sculpture at a very good price. Of course, museums have to work harder, too, now, on their donor base, to raise the money. If there really is a commitment to do so, I think they can always come through.
Is there a passing of the baton going on in the collectors of the South Asian sculpture, or is it a long-standing group of people who have most of the things that they’re interested?
What I think is happening, generally across the board, is a type of eclectic collecting. Which means great Indian sculptures are combined with great contemporary work. There’s more and more of that happening. In a sense, someone like Yves St. Laurent putting together his vision is a great case in point.
I think that’s the trend in going forward, to do that. Anyone with vision and a sense of quality can create added value in a collection.
It makes it all the more important to explain to a collector base like that how rare an object is.
You’re right. That’s a catch-22, in a sense. You need to have the immediate understanding of something being important. Maybe as a collector today you don’t have all the time to study or deepen your knowledge and read up about a particular work. But you need to have that certainty that it is really something.
That’s what I find, in particular with great American collectors, they’ve always had that ability to recognize something out of the blue, and say, “I can see it’s something important. I don’t know about it, but I can see it’s important, and I want to get it.”
Are those collectors primarily American or non-resident Indians who may be third or second-generation Americans?
I would say it’s Americans specifically. But I would say in mentioning the rise in Indian art, there was particular interest in modern and contemporary Indian art. That is not surprising, because we see it across post-war contemporary art collecting. New money, or people that have achieved something in their professional life, they typically are drawn to art of their time, and they will buy that first. It takes more education, in a sense, or more time invested to look back in time and fully appreciate the achievements of the past. But that comes as a next step.
What we found, then, in the last year or two, is that a price divide opened up between contemporary Asian art and the classical arts, and people suddenly woke up and said, “Why are these things from ancient times so cheap by comparison?” That created, in a sense, a catch-up.
Is there enough of a direct line that if you’ve begun with contemporary Indian painters, or even modern Indian painters, that it will push you back into the miniatures and other pieces of South Asian art?
I strongly believe that. We’ve seen signs of that happening too. Because art is a continuum you have to understand it not as sections or aspects.
People realize, in Indian art, there’s a tremendous history behind it. You can reconnect to that in a sense, in a new way, as a collector.
Are there dealers also making that connection?
I think this has to be driven by individuals, at the end of the day. It’s the great collectors who have done it. You need to have a personality with great vision.
On the other side of it, the material isn’t easy to come by. They’re all struggling to get the material, and nobody has the money to put down on these things and hold them for an amount of time to build a collection and present it.
So you’re not selling to a lot of dealers.
No, not at all, actually. That has been a goal of Christie’s, is to reach to the end consumer, so to speak, to reach the collector directly. We’ve done that very effectively. Right now, we’re ideally positioned to shape the market or form it or give guidance or build a consensus, all of that. So that is a remarkable transition or transformation that has happened.
So you feel you’ve done the work to be the advisor directly to the clients, to help them with this eclectic vision of a broader idea of what Asian art is, and find their own line within all of that.
So all you need is the wherewithal and the economic confidence going forward to get people back into the momentum that we saw only a year or so ago.
Absolutely, I would completely agree with that. We’ve reached, in the market, where things are sorting themselves out. What is a more important work by an artist or a lesser work by an Indian artist? All of these things are being sorted out. The sort of fluff or whatever happened on top of that is being eliminated. That’s good. When you have the benefit of being able to look back over a development or a market or art history or historical evolution, then you can say, with greater certainty, what stands out, what was a milestone achievement.
I was looking at what sold out of your Modern and Contemporary Indian sale, and what seemed to sell was very Indian. Was there a bias that had a subcontinental feel as opposed to something related to contemporary art?
In fact, I can tell you that our colleagues from the Hong Kong team putting together the Asian contemporary sales asked us to contribute Indian works that had an Indian feel to them, because that’s what the collectors in Asia, China, Indonesia and others would like to see.
An important work like the Hussein that belongs to the Abrams’ Family collection, didn’t sell. To me, that’s astonishing, really, because the significance of the work is remarkable. It’s an extremely important work not only for Hussein, but its historical significance. The good news is that it has been requested for the Guggenheim show on Indian art, which will take place in one year.
So it’s a missed opportunity, really. This is an important work. In five years’ time, ten years’ time, people will look back and say, “Why didn’t I buy it?” It’s so evident.
Three other works from the sale, including a Gandhi painting we had by Hussein, will also be featured in that exhibition.
That sold very well, Gandhi seems to be a very popular subject.
It seems the whole of this market is moving towards Hong Kong?
It is. We used to sell in Singapore. Then we consolidated, maybe five years back, everything in Hong Kong, because it’s costly to sell off-site.
At the time, there was some concern, “That will be a disadvantage because everything is happening in Singapore.” It had absolutely no effect. On the contrary, it was a positive boost, even, to come to Hong Kong, because everyone is happy to travel there. It’s turned out to be a real benefit, even Chinese collectors now are looking at Southeast Asia as an opportunity.
From an Asian perspective, there’s always, “What’s the next thing, what should we be looking at, what might turn out to be a profitable thing?”
And you get the sense that the success of the Chinese contemporary market has driven people to the Indonesian painters.. It all seems to have some relationship to each other, it’s no longer isolated national trends.
What you said first is critical. Particularly the way we were able to showcase things at the convention center in Hong Kong, almost like an art fair, where Korean, Japanese, Indonesian artists, alongside Chinese and Indian, people really did compare. “Oh, this Korean artist, they can really paint fantastic, they’re highly skilled artists, why is it so cheap compared to the Chinese painting. I want to buy this now.”
That definitely happens. That’s been very beneficial for Indian art. That’s why we are very excited to be able to have a different platform for the different artists and be able to help open eyes, in a sense, in new markets.
The other aspect of American and European, to me, it’s also a little bit of a surprise that that has been lagging. What we see happening now, and that is a good development, is that the museums and exhibitions around the world are now really now kicking in in a big way for Indian art. There was the exhibition at the Mori Building in Tokyo not too long ago, which was fantastically well-done and staged. It will travel on to Vienna. There was ARCO in Spain, highlights showcasing specifically Indian art. Now the Guggenheim is doing their exhibitions.
All that is happening now. It’s interesting that it takes a gestation period of a few years before the academic institutions mount their exhibitions. But that will provide a new level of confidence or recognition, which then will take everything to the next step.
Some say the Chinese contemporary bubble has burst, but there are a number of these artists in the upcoming sale.
We carefully consider now each work we take on: who could be potential buyers or who should be looking at it. Then we’ll take the best of what we see. So we’re being more and more selective ourselves; but these are great artists, this is not just a flash in the pan.
These buyers are shifting from being North American and European to Chinese and South Asian or Southeast Asian. The people you ultimately expect to be most interested in these works are in Asia?
It’s totally international. It’s not that certain buyer groups disappear. It’s new groups of interest are created and new people enter the field. That’s our goal, to broaden the market. But there can be shifts, right, there’s an increased level of interest coming out of new areas.
Are there significant collectors of the size who bring things together, both blessing a specific artist but also generating momentum?
Yes. The thing is, China has a longer history there in terms of collecting contemporary art. It is slightly ahead of the curve compared to other Asian contemporary art. There’s a big Indonesian collector who is published a lot and also has a kind of private museum. He seems responsible, he’s been holding up the banner in a sense.
He’s been at it maybe a decade, and it took a very long time comparatively for it to flourish more.
If you’re the only person doing it and it hasn’t been done before, a decade is fairly quick.
You’re right, in the bigger picture, if we compare to the Western art scene, we do have collectors from the early days that go back to the Sixties or more, and that’s the base we can still build on, those were the tastemakers.
The Freeman collection that’s coming up is a case in point of an exceptional personality with incredible vision doing this and supporting the artists and the artists being inspired by her. So we’re looking back there at maybe two generations of collecting already, which we don’t have in the emerging markets by definition, it’s a very short period. So we have to give everything time to settle and build and evolve.
To me, art is always a language that can be understood everywhere in the world. To me, it’s gratifying and rewarding to see that Asian art has always been well-received in the West.
But I think that the moment for Asia is only really starting now. We see China asserting itself in new ways; India producing a car for $2,000 that many people in India will be able to buy. That will create a whole new level of mobility, I think – intellectually, too.
So it’s very exciting times. I think this will only go from strength to strength. We just need to realize we don’t have all that much material to work with.
Demand will grow, in my view, there’s no doubt, that will automatically bring prices up. The museums in India, as well as in China, will step up the game, too. The governments will realize the significance of these things and present them well, paint the walls, put a nice pedestal there, improve the lighting. It’s happening.