How to buy Chinese art for less

How to buy Chinese art for less

Collectors are snapping up Chinese artworks left and right worldwide for astronomical prices. Shanghai experts explain how to get in on the trend for less -- much less
Buying Chinese art -- Zendai Art Supermarket
You've heard of a supermarket, but ever been to an art supermarket? If you're looking to start an art collection, Zendai could be your new BFF.

Over the last decade, Chinese artworks have become a hot commodity. But if you don't have a million kwai (or even RMB 10,000) to spend, it's easy to think that buying a piece of the Chinese art market will break your budget.

So with the help of some of Shanghai's best-known gallerists, we offer up eight tips for starting a Chinese art collection for less -- much less.

Buying Chinese art -- Adam -- NeochaEDGEAdam J. Schokora showcases Chinese artists one click at a time on NeochaEDGE.

Tip 1: Look online for bargains

One reason it's difficult to find affordable art in Shanghai's galleries is because they have to pay such high rents to operate in the city; it's in their best interests to sell works from established artists they know will sell for the highest prices.

Some of the best bargains can be found online, particularly from sites that focus on young artists. One example is Bound Editorial, which currently stocks prints from locally-based photographers available from RMB 250.

The NeochaEDGE collective also includes some of China's most exciting young artists.

“Most of the work on our site is available for between RMB 500 and RMB 2,000 for a print,” says Adam J. Schokora, CEO and co-founder of NeochaEDGE. “For original works, it can get a bit more expensive, but usually nothing over RMB 10,000. Most original stuff is less than RMB 5,000.”

Buying Chinese art -- ZendaiGorge on art at Zendai's brand of supermarket.

Tip 2: Zendai Art Supermarket

The stated aim of this large-scale art warehouse is to “Make original art more accessible,” which makes it a great option for discovering young artists and finding art bargains.

“They have some quirky little drawings and paintings and contemporary and Chinese traditional furniture and ceramics,” says Rebecca Catching, Director of OV Gallery. “It's really worth a browse around, I would say it leans a bit more popular but I've seen paintings there that I definitely thought were cute.”

The sheer amount of art available at Zendai (No. 28, Lane, 199 Fangdain Lu, near Dingxiang Lu 芳甸路199弄28号 近丁香路, +86 21 5033 6156) means that even if it's not all to your taste, investing some time and effort to find the diamonds among the duds is very worthwhile.

Buying Chinese art -- Michelle FQMichelle Ni, the proprietor of FQ Projects, advises people to think out of the frame.

Tip 3: Choose the right medium

Drawings, photography, works on paper and smaller-sized artworks are all generally more affordable than oil paintings or giant sculptures.

“For more affordable works you should be looking at smaller sizes or a more economic medium,” says Leslie Kuo, gallery manager of Leo Gallery. “I actually think process sketches are really cool.”

Michelle Ni, the proprietor of FQ Projects, agrees.

“Under RMB 5,000, there are some small works on paper or editorial works, such as etchings, silk screens, photography and woodcut prints that are well worth buying,” he says.

At OV Gallery, Catching points out some very pretty digital prints from Ben Houge and watercolors on paper by Qian Rong as examples of more affordable mediums, available for less than RMB 5,000.

Buying Chinese art -- Leslie KuoLeslie Kuo, gallery manager of Leo Gallery, says you should like the gallerist as much as the art.

Tip 4: Buy what you like

This is the most common advice from all the experts we spoke to.

But sometimes, for people without a background in art, it can be hard to know exactly how to find out what it is you like. Catching advises seeing as much art as possible in order to develop your aesthetic.

“See a lot of shows, learn how to look very carefully and you'll find over time that your taste starts to evolve,” she suggests. “The more you see, the more you understand.”

Ni suggests finding a gallerist you trust to help guide you through the process of buying art for the first time, an idea Kuo agrees with.

Kuo says that not only can you tell a lot about what you like by what galleries and gallerists you like, but it also “really enhances the experience of buying art when you have a relationship with the gallerist.”

Buying Chinese art -- Liu GuanguangArtist like Liu Guanguang (above) and gallerists are usually flexible, all you need to do is know how to ask.

Tip 5: Order off the menu

According to the experts, people shouldn't be afraid of asking galleries about what they have available that isn't currently on show. For example, if you discover a Chinese painter whose style you love but you can't afford their paintings, ask the gallerist whether perhaps they can sell drawings or sketches from the same artist, as they usually cost a lot less.

Kuo says people are well within their rights to be upfront with their gallerist about their price range, as most will try their best to be accommodating.

“When you are looking at art don't be afraid of ordering off the menu," says Kuo. If clients come to Leo Gallery with a budget, even a modest one, something often can be worked out to fit their needs.

Buying Chinese art -- OV GalleryBargaining doesn't end at Qipu Lu according to OV Gallery's Rebecca Catching.

Tip 6: Don't be afraid to bargain

As with most commercial transactions in Shanghai, bargaining is an accepted part of the process.

According to Catching, a 10 percent discount isn't unusual and a 20 percent discount isn't unheard of. “We [at OV Gallery] don't really give more than 20 percent,” she says, before adding, “If someone buys a couple of works we can give a bit more of a discount.”

Another way to save some money is to try and get framing included in your final purchase price -- it certainly doesn't hurt to ask.

Buying Chinese art -- ShanghARTSites like ShanghART push hard for their artists both here and overseas -- increasing the value of the art they sell.

Tip 7: Think about the potential future value of the art work

Although most people looking for affordable art aren't necessarily looking at their fledgling collection as a financial investment, if you know what you're looking for, you might be able to buy art works that pay you back more than you expect in the future.

According to Catching, it's important to consider who is representing the artist and whether the representing gallery is working hard to promote the artist. She uses the example of ShanghART as a local gallery pushing hard for their artists both here and overseas.

“If you buy a piece from ShangART you know that they are working really hard representing their artists and you know that artist is going to be shown at a lot of places,” she says. “The more people are aware of an artist, the more people will start to buy the artist and the price goes up.”

Buying Chinese art -- Martin Kemble"The greatest value in collecting art is the happiness it can bring," says Martin Kemble, the director at Art Labor 2.0.

Tip 8: Take your time and enjoy the process

According to Martin Kemble, the director at Art Labor 2.0, the greatest value in collecting art is the happiness it can bring you, so it's more important to embrace the process than worry too much about market value or auction prices.

“More than likely the greatest return that art work will bring you is the daily satisfaction of looking at it,” he says.

Kuo agrees, advising potential customers to embrace the process and not stress out too much about having to find something you will love forever.

“If you care enough about the process, this can actually be really fun,” she says. “When you buy something, it will effect your mood, but it's very rare to find something you are going to love day in day out for the rest of your life. Don't be afraid of committing to an art work, it's not a marriage.”

Casey is a city/lifestyle journalist from Melbourne, Australia, who has been based in Shanghai since 2007.

Read more about Casey Hall