Asia’s young and wealthy are fueling demand for art — what are they collecting?

Auctioneer Victoire Gineste gestures as she adjudicates for 20 million euros ($21.9 million) a recently rediscovered drawing by Michelangelo, the artist’s first known nude, at the Christie’s auction house in Paris on May 18, 2022.

Emmanuel Dunand | Afp | Getty Images

Wealthy, young collectors in Asia have been fueling demand for art — particularly via online channels — and have emerged as a key clientele for international auction houses.

Despite being relatively new to the market, Gen Zers, those aged between 12 and 27, and millennials — 28 to 43 years old — have sharply increased their spending on art purchases.

The median expenditure on art and antiques by high-net-worth millennials in Asia was $59,785, while for Gen Zers it was $56,000 during the first half of 2023, compared with $61,820 and $65,000, respectively, for the entire 2022, according to the Art Basel & UBS Survey of Global Collecting 2023.

“Asia is a key driver of millennial buying at Christie’s globally,” Christie’s said.

Mainland China was the top contributing region by value for millennials, followed by Hong Kong and Singapore at Christie’s Hong Kong 2023 Autumn Auctions, a spokesperson told CNBC.

In Asia, collectors from China had the highest median expenditure of $241,000 in the first half of 2023, followed by Singapore at $38,000 and Taiwan at $31,000 — with Chinese patrons also being the largest spenders globally, the report showed.

Top-tier international auction houses Sotheby’s and Phillips have also reported a surge in purchases by young Asian collectors in recent years.

In the first half of 2023, millennials made up almost 40% of Christie’s buyers in Asia Pacific, and 20% in the Americas, Europe and the Middle East, according to the spokesperson. A report from the auction house showed a 65% increase in new Gen Z buyers in 2023.

Millennials accounted for nearly a third of the global buyers and 40% of Asian buyers at Phillips in 2022, its latest annual report showed.

Sotheby’s 2023 report stated that bidding activity of younger collectors grew to 30% in the first half of 2023 from 6% in 2018. Millennials and Gen X — aged 44 to 59 — are classified as “younger collectors” by the auction house.

While there was “significant activity from millennials across Asia,” “flourishing contributions” from Taiwan and South Korea stood out in 2023, the Christie’s representative highlighted.

What are they collecting?

Younger buyers have a different eye for art and their purchases contrast with the preferences of older generations.

Last year, millennials spent the most on sculptures, installations, photography and film or video art, while Gen Zers favored digital art and prints, the report by Art Basel & UBS stated.

“Millennial collectors are drawn to figurative work … there is also a demand among young buyers for surrealist landscapes that portray spiritual spaces,” Erin Remington, director of sales and curation at Saatchi Art, an online art gallery and marketplace, told CNBC.

As many as 64% of the younger buyers — aged 18 to 36 — feel that it is important to have emerging artists in their collection, compared with just 43% of the older buyers, Artsy, an online art brokerage told CNBC.

For the younger collectors, purchasing from blue-chip artists — those who are well-known in the industry — is not a priority. Only 11% of the younger collectors consider it important to collect blue-chip art, compared with 23% of the older buyers, Artsy’s 2023 Art Collector Insights showed.

In Asia, millennial buyers are collecting both contemporary and classical Asian Art, “reflecting a desire to connect with their roots and culture,” the representative at Christie’s said.

At Christie’s 2023 Hong Kong Autumn Auctions, 40% of the new buyers who purchased Chinese ceramics, paintings and works of art were millennials, Christie’s told CNBC.

Online art auctions

While physical auction numbers have mostly returned to the pre-pandemic levels, online art sales are here to stay.

The size of the online art market is expected to grow to $17.76 billion by 2030 from $9.72 billion last year, according to a report by Grand View Research.

The number of online art auctions also rose in 2023 as high-net-worth collectors —  individuals with at least $1 million in liquid financial assets — became more selective about physical art events, and most reduced visits to live auctions, the report by Art Basel & UBS showed.

There is a 'massive shift' to digital in the auction market, says Christie's

Post pandemic, the art world saw a “massive shift into digital,” Francis Belin, president of Asia Pacific at Christie’s told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.”

In the first half of 2023, 80% of the bids across auctions at Christie’s were placed online compared with pre-pandemic levels of 45% in 2019, Christie’s said.

The pandemic has “brought digital very much at the forefront in what we do, which is presenting arts and supporting transactions … a lot of collectors now are being very comfortable (with online auctions) bidding up to 40 million Hong Kong dollars ($5.12 million),” Belin said.

Gen Z collectors often purchase art from listings online and have favored handbags, watches and prints artworks created by applying ink on engraved wood or stone and pressed onto paper according to the report by Christie’s.

Auction houses are stepping up investments in digital spaces to entice younger buyers who are “more digitally savvy and globally connected,” Christie’s said.

It continues to extend its digital reach through livestream auctions and online bids on social media platform WeChat. The auction house’s livestreams hit a record high of 60 million views in 2023, the representative highlighted.

“We have increasingly millennials and younger collectors buying at Christie’s [and] starting to collect … that we’ve been able to also engage much more with all our digital innovations,” Belin added.