China’s antique collectors driving prices through the roof

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Prices for antiques in China have risen sharply over the past five years and now galleries all over the world over are waiting for the nation's cashed-up collectors to spread the wealth overseas.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Netherlands' Tefaf Maastricht ( - the world's largest art and antiques fair which ends on Sunday, March 21 - New York gallery director James Hennessy said that internationally things were looking up in the antique market, but all eyes were on China.

"Business is better than last year," Hennessy told the Bloomberg news agency. "The market for Chinese art expands with the Chinese economy. There are thousands of collectors in mainland China who are seeking out works in the West. At the same time Western collectors realize they have to buy now before prices rise too much."

Dealers in Asia point to October last year and Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong - when HK$85.7 million (eight million euros) was paid for an 18th century throne - as the exact moment Chinese antique collectors officially entered the big leagues.

That was a record amount, the most ever paid for a piece of antique Chinese furniture, topping the HK$36.89 million (3.5 million euros) paid for a bed of similar age at an auction in Beijing in 2008.

Both items were fashioned from "zitan'' - or purple sandalwood - which is highly prized by Chinese collectors due to its extreme rarity and the elaborate designs ancient craftsman applied to the pieces when working with it.

A spokesperson for the Hong Kong International Art and Antiques Fair ( - to be held from May 27-30 - said in the past decade, trade in Chinese antiques had gone from being 90 percent Western in the 2000s, to 95 percent Chinese now.

And that the Chinese were starting to look all over the world for their antiques. "You just can't imagine the amount of money they spend,'' the spokesperson told the South China Morning Post newspaper.

Sotheby's, meanwhile, has gone on record as saying that the number of their Chinese clients has increased threefold over the past decades while prices for Chinese antiques have at least tripled.

Good news all round for those already owning ancient Chinese furniture. "Market supply has dried up,'' antique dealer Ho Hung-yung said. "People are not selling [and] the prices of the pieces keeps going up.''