Chinese hunt for traditional UK treasures

An inspection of antiques reflected in a mirror of an antique French wardrobe.

Western furniture is getting increasingly popular in China.

The number of Chinese browsing for antiques in UK auction houses is also growing at an unprecedented rate. (Photo/China Daily)

When International UK auction houses linked up with the Chinese website epaiLive.com in November last year, it opened up a platform where the buyer didn’t have to travel halfway across the world to trawl through British antiques. Chinese collectors could browse through hundreds of online catalogues and authorize epaiLive to bid on behalf of them.

This new procedure has given Chinese collectors direct access to auctions overseas. It has also been responsible for the increase in hammer prices and the revitalization of the British antique market as Chinese bidders buy up old-fashioned English goods common in many homes and turn them into treasures.

“Chinese people respect English history and their lifestyle,” said Susan Sun, a Shanghai businesswoman who owns an interior design company that places a very big markup on British imports.

Chinese people are prepared to pay a staggering amount of money for the imported products. British auction house Sworders sold a cup made from rhinoceros horn for 215,000 pounds ($341,270) in November, which far exceeded the estimated price of between 50,000 and 70,000 pounds due to the presence of Chinese bidders on epaiLive.com.

“The exotic and elegant styles of British goods is what’s so attractive to Chinese people,” said Sun.

Sun who spent 17 years in a UK investment bank and eight years in Hong Kong said her business caters for upper middle class and wealthy families who are often on the lookout for sitting and study room furniture. Her company stocks traditional and modern European furniture in a number of cities across China.

English bookcases that would usually be sold for 980 pounds would fetch 10 times that amount in China. A Gainsborough-style leather armchair that would sell for 450 pounds would be expected to sell for 1,750 pounds.

While there are many customers who prefer to buy British antiques from China, the number that are browsing for antiques in UK auction houses is reportedly growing at an unprecedented rate.

Chinese furniture collector Zhang Weibin recently asked his friend in England to place bids of up to 500,000 yuan ($79,365) for traditional furniture to fill a shipping container.

“I especially love British-style furniture. It is a vivid contrast to those found in traditional Chinese and modern homes,” said Zhang.

Shanghai furniture buyer Chen Mengfei acts as an agent for a collector base in Shanghai. Chen visits UK auction houses once a month. “I never come back empty-handed,” she said.

This is good news for British auction houses such as Sworders, which has seen Chinese trade grow from 2 to 20 per cent of turnover in the last three years.

Woolley & Wallis also reported positive results as Chinese buyers alone contributed 19 million of the 28 million pounds of its 2010 sales revenue.

The obsession over British antiques is unlikely to fade and is more likely to grow. Rebecca Li, marketing director of epaiLive.com, said Western furniture is getting increasingly popular in China. “We can see people hit epaiLive’s overseas catalogue page for all kinds of goods.

Watches, jewelry, silver and furniture are getting higher hits than others,” she said.

But despite the buying frenzy from China, there’s a suggestion that some customers are getting ripped off.

The most sought after British antique furniture includes pieces from the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras.

“Right now some Chinese buyers often can’t even distinguish between British and French furniture,” said Li.

Sun also admitted that many Chinese people don’t have good taste when it comes to buying British antiques. “They require proper training,” she added.

 

Tania Lee, China Daily

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