Western masterpieces offered up to Chinese buyers

Western masterpieces offered up to Chinese buyers
A man looks at Rembrandt's "Portrait of a Man With Arms Akimbo" at Sotheby's exhibition in Beijing

BEIJING - A $50 million (S$62.7 million) Rembrandt portrait takes pride of place in a Beijing hotel room, with Picassos and Renoirs dotting the walls as major Western auction houses look to tempt China's superrich with Europe's finest art.

The exhibition, running until Sunday, ranks among the more distinguished displays of Western art seen in the Chinese capital, but is actually a private sale by international auctioneers Sotheby's.

It also includes works by Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec and Delacroix, among others.

Except for the Rembrandt, Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo, painted in 1658, prices are not displayed or publicly disclosed - but undoubtedly rank in the category of "if you have to ask you can't afford it".

Chinese collectors have sent prices for their own country's heritage spiralling on the back of its economic boom, and are now turning their attention to Western items too.

"What we have seen in the last five years, is that there is a lot of Asian appetite in terms of Western art and the purchase by mainland Chinese has gone up by 500 per cent," Sotheby's Asia Chairman Patti Wong told AFP.

"As more Chinese get to see many exhibitions and with greater ability to travel abroad, their interest will inevitably widen," she added. "Over time the taste becomes more international and more diversified."

Sotheby's forged an alliance with the state-owned art company GeHua Art to crack open entry to the China art market, while its great rival Christie's held its first independent auction in mainland China in September.

That sale came after Christie's owner, French billionaire Francois Pinault,

gave two bronze animal heads looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace in 1860 - long a symbol of Western exploitation - back to Chinese authorities earlier this year.

Whether it sells all the pieces or not, Sotheby's regards the mere fact of its exhibition as a success.

"It doesn't matter that we don't have immediate reaction but you see that there is interest and sooner or later we believe that these buyers will migrate into our sale rooms in London and New York," said Wong.

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