China has flexed its growing economic muscle in recent years by investing billions in American real estate and major U.S. companies like Smithfield Foods Inc. Now, it is jumping into the art market with multimillion-dollar offers to buy paintings and artifacts from American museums and collectors. But more than just investing, China wants to buy back its cultural heritage, experts say.
Part of that heritage resides in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, which the bankrupt city has tried to keep out of those proceedings. But four groups of investors have offered to acquire DIA's world-class collection, which includes valuable pieces like Vincent Van Gogh’s "Self Portrait" and Henri Matisse’s "The Window," the Financial Times reported on Wednesday, and two of the groups are Chinese. Yuan Capital offered $1.47 billion for 116 pieces from the collection, and Beijing-based Poly International Auction offered $1 billion for all the Chinese art in the collection. At the same time, London-based Bell Capital Partners and New Jersey’s Catalyst Acquisitions jointly offered $1.75 billion for the entire collection, and Art Capital Group offered a $2 billion loan that would keep the collection in the Motor City.
“Chinese equity and debt markets are underdeveloped compared to the U.S.,” Jim Cahn, chief investment officer of Wealth Enhancement Group and an avid art collector, told International Business Times. “Because of this, Chinese investors are looking for alternative stores of value, which has driven up the Chinese real estate markets as well as the Chinese art market.”
The DIA declined to comment on the possible acquisition.
“Countries usually sell their cultural heritage during periods of weakness,” Cahn added. “The buying back of China’s cultural heritage by the Chinese is a way of saying, ‘Our period of weakness is over.’”
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Among other recent cases of the Chinese spending big sums on art, on April 8 a Shanghai collector paid a record $36 million for a rare Ming Dynasty "Chicken Cup" that’s known in the art world as the “holy grail” of Chinese art.
But not all Chinese art collectors are seeking to revive Chinese cultural heritage.
“For the wealthy Chinese who are into conspicuous consumption, collecting fine art is a natural extension that goes beyond owning your own airplane, yacht, private jet and helicopter,” Ray Kwong, a senior adviser to the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute, told IBTimes.
It would be a mistake to assume these purchases are just Chinese collectors adding to their private coffers. There's also lots of museum space to fill. In 1949, when the Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China, the country with an incredibly rich cultural history had just 25 museums. But by the end of 2012, China had 3,866 museums, surpassing the 3,500 that the government aimed to have by 2015.
“With that many museums, the bidding for museum-worthy objects is going to be intense,” Cahn said.