During auctions of Impressionist and Modern art in London last week, Sotheby's specialist Patti Wong was taken aback by the persistence of a Chinese bidder.
The Mandarin-speaking man, for whom Ms. Wong fielded telephone bids, wrangled with an Italian phone bidder over 'Embrace,' a racy love scene by Pablo Picasso drawn on bright red paper.
Though he eventually lost out to the Italian, the Chinese bidder left an indelible impression on Ms. Wong. 'I never thought a Chinese bidder would chase it so high,' said Ms. Wong, a 25-year veteran of the auction house. The late-period piece sold for $4.9 million, well above its $3 million estimate.
Western buyers have long considered paper works by Old Masters, Impressionist and modern artists as mere test drives for the real performances─large and colorful paintings. But as the supply of splashy paintings by brand-name artists like Picasso dries up, new and enthusiastic Asian collectors are jostling to acquire blue-chip works on paper.
At both Sotheby's and Christie's, a number of mostly Chinese-speaking collectors from Asia are flocking to works on paper by Picasso, Egon Schiele, Henri Matisse and Francisco Goya.
In last week's evening sale, Sotheby's said a record number of Asians participated, buying 25% of the auction house's works on paper. Christie's noted the same percentage of its work on paper went to Asian bidders at its evening sale.
Since 2010, the number of Asian buyers of Impressionist and modern works on paper is up 213%, according to Christie's, and Asian buyers of Old Masters on paper are up 150%.
Even a mediocre oil painting by Picasso can cost upward of $45 million. (In February, a lone bidder from Asia paid that amount at Sotheby's for Picasso's 'Woman Sitting Near a Window,' which was estimated at $40 million.) A top drawing, by contrast, can be fought over and won for only a fraction of that cost.
'They'd rather have the best quality drawing than a so-so oil work,' says Ms. Wong, mentioning a seasoned Asian buyer who paid $12.4 million for 'Lovers─Self-Portrait With Wally,' a Schiele drawing sold at Sotheby's by Vienna's Leopold Museum in February.
Asian buyers began entering the market for works on paper around 2008, say dealers and auction houses. Less prone to speculation, top works by brand-name artists promise a lower but steadier rate of return than their painting counterparts. Schiele's paper works purchased at auction in 2009 will bring an average 42% rate of return in today's market, according to data analyst Artnet. A work by Picasso, who has a larger available paper supply, would still bring 17% profit at auction now, Artnet says.
In the Old Masters category, works on paper have slowly been increasing in price for decades. But this process is accelerating as both Western and Chinese collectors recognize offerings by the auction houses' paper departments as their only chance to own a work by a top master.
The increased competition and dwindling supply have tightened the price gap between paper and paintings in the past several years, says Benjamin Peronnet, international head of Old Master drawings at Christie's.
'We know when we have a very good drawing there's a 50% chance─maybe even more─that it won't come back to the market,' says Mr. Peronnet, whose department has stepped up efforts to take works on paper to Hong Kong to show off to prospective buyers. Ahead of the July works-on-paper sale, he says that his Asian clients have been particularly interested in 'If you miss the mark!'─an ink on paper work by Goya estimated between $1.5 million and $2.3 million─and 'Five Studies of Children,' a Jean-Antoine Watteau study of cherub-faced toddlers estimated between $463,200 and $617,600.
So far, the auction houses have dominated Chinese sales of works on paper as their outposts in Hong Kong and well-known brands provide significant advantages. But some galleries are now trying to get into the game.
Matteo Lampertico, a former Christie's specialist, opened his Milan-based gallery in 2007 and is offering a $496,700 Joan Miro and $1.6 million Matisse at his stand at Masterpiece London, an art fair that opened in London this week.
'As a gallery it's more difficult to meet the clients, and Sotheby's and Christie's have a huge advantage in the market, but we're doing the fairs to hopefully change that,' said Mr. Lampertico.
在苏富比和佳士得(Christie's)，众多来自亚洲的、大多讲中文的收藏家正在对毕加索、埃贡•席勒(Egon Schiele)、亨利•马蒂斯(Henri Matisse)和弗朗西斯科•戈雅(Francisco Goya)的纸品画作趋之若鹜。
即使一幅平庸的毕加索油画作品都能卖出4,500万美元的价格。（今年2月，一位亚洲买家在无人竞争的情况下在苏富比以上述价格拍下了毕加索的油画《坐在窗边的女人》(Woman Sitting Near a Window)，这幅作品的估价在4,000万美元。）相比之下，一幅最高水准的纸品画作也可能只能卖到这一价格的一小部分。
黄林诗韵说：“在品质上佳的纸品画作和平庸的油画作品中，亚洲买家更青睐前者。”她还说，在苏富比今年2月的一场拍卖会上，一位经验丰富的亚洲买家以1,240万美元从维也纳列奥波多博物馆(Leopold Museum)手中购入了席勒的纸品画作《恋人──与威莉的自画像》(Lovers─Self-Portrait With Wally)。
佩龙内特表示：“当我们拍卖一幅上乘佳作的时候，我们知道，这幅作品不会重返市场的几率有50%甚至更高。”佳士得古典大师绘画部门已经加大了到香港向潜在买家展示纸品画作的力度。佩龙内特称，在7月2日的佳士得纸品画作拍卖举行之前，他的亚洲客户对下面几幅作品尤为关注：戈雅的墨水画《如果你没打中目标！(《If you miss the mark!》)，这幅作品的估价在150万美元到230万美元之间，最终成交价231万美元；让•安东尼•华托(Jean-Antoine Watteau)以五位小天使模样的幼童作为绘画对象的习作《五个儿童习作》(Five Studies of Children)，这幅作品的估价在456,300到608,400美元之间，最终成交价为124万美元。
佳士得前专家马特奥•兰佩蒂科(Matteo Lampertico)于2007年在米兰开设了自己的画廊。在6月下旬于伦敦召开的艺术品展会伦敦大师杰作展(Masterpiece London)上，他带来了胡安•米罗(Joan Miro)和马蒂斯的作品，这两幅作品分别开价496,700美元和160万美元。