• Younger people in Asia are buying art in increasing numbers, according to Nicolas Chow, Sotheby’s chairman for Asia.
  • Buying at auction — instead of purchasing from a dealer, for example — is popular with millennials and Gen X collectors globally.
  • Digital art, including AI-generated work, is on the up, said Angelle Siyang-Le, director of the Art Basel fair in Hong Kong.

Younger, wealthy shoppers in Asia are splashing their cash on art, according to a longtime collector and senior auction house executive.

Nicolas Chow, Sotheby’s chairman for Asia, said more than 40% of its buyers of contemporary art are millennials (born between 1981 and 1996), while Gen X (1965 to 1980) are also likely to be big spenders, he said.

“The buyers are increasingly younger. What we’ve seen actually in 2023 … Gen X is the most important buy-base actually — over a million dollars, they dominate the market,” Chow told CNBC’s “Art of Appreciation.”

Gen Z — the youngest age group for buyers — is “coming in quite strongly,” he said, adding that he recently saw a 20-year-old buyer acquire a piece in Shanghai to celebrate his graduation.

Wealthy millennials in Asia spent a median of $59,785 on art and antiques during the first half of 2023, while for Gen Zers the figure was $56,000, according to the Art Basel & UBS Survey of Global Collecting 2023.

Buying at auction — instead of from a dealer, for example — is popular with millennials and Gen X collectors globally, according to the survey. The trend appears to be playing out in Asia. At Christie’s Hong Kong spring season auction, held between May 25 and June 1, around a quarter of buyers were new to the auction house, and 43% of those were millennials, according to an online release.

A visitor takes a selfie with work by Yoshitomo Nara during Sotheby’s Hong Kong spring sales on April 2, 2024.

Chen Yongnuo | China News Service | Getty Images

And, while the size of the global art market fell 4% last year to around $65 billion, according to the Art Basel & UBS Art Market Report 2024, sales in China rose by 9% in 2023, overtaking the U.K. as the world’s second-largest art market. “Activity surged as post-lockdown buyers snapped up backlogged auction inventories and as Hong Kong’s major fairs and exhibitions returned to full-scale programming,” wrote report author and founder of Arts Economics, Clare McAndrew.

For Sotheby’s, the rise in younger buyers is driven in part by an increase in online activity. “During the pandemic, we really sort of developed our digital abilities with live streaming … And this has really brought in art to the greater communities and allowed us to engage with our buyers across the world,” Chow said.

Younger collectors are keen on newer art forms, with Gen Z collectors having the highest average expenditure on digital art globally — as well as prints — of any generation, according to the Survey of Global Collecting 2023.

For Angelle Siyang-Le, director of the Art Basel fair in Hong Kong, artists who work in digital media are becoming more prominent. “The definition of digital art nowadays has been expanded from simply photography to video art to NFTs to AI-generated art,” she told CNBC’s “Art of Appreciation.”

An NFT, or non-fungible token, is a unique digital asset stored on the blockchain. Sales of art-related NFTs were $1.2 billion in 2023, less than half the $2.9 billion peak in 2021 — though still significantly higher than 2020 sales, which were $20 million, according to the Art Market Report 2024.

“With the younger generations becoming more and more prominent in the market … digital artists … will be the group of artists getting more attention,” Siyang-Le added.

Hong Kong-based artist Mak2 uses a variety of mediums in her work, including Instagram videos. Her 2017 work, “You Better Watch Out,” an inflatable, transparent “snow globe,” featured floating QR codes that the audience could scan. CCTV cameras filmed people scanning the codes, which linked to a web page that showed the audience looking at the artwork.

“So you are watching yourself being watched,” Mak2 told CNBC’s Art of Appreciation. “You’re not just looking at your phone, you’re becom[ing] data circulat[ing] inside the app and being recorded and analyzed,” she added.

People view work at Art Basel Hong Kong, held in March 2024. An installation by artist Mak2, “Copy of Copy of Copy of Copy,” is just seen at the center.

China News Service | Li Zhihua | Getty Images

Mak2 exhibited at Art Basel Hong Kong in March, with an installation named “Copy of Copy of Copy of Copy,” based on video game The Sims and painted by artists she commissioned via an e-commerce site.

Over the past 10 years, Sotheby’s has “opened up” more to contemporary and modern art, Chow said. “Fifty years ago when we came to Asia … we brought Chinese art … And today, we sort of really opened the market to all sorts of new experiences and new material, from dinosaurs to cars to contemporary art, from all around the world. NFTs, sneakers, you name it,” he said.

Hong Kong’s Art Gallery Association recorded a 27% increase in member galleries between 2021 and 2023, while the Hong Kong Palace Museum opened in 2022, and the M+ last year — both contemporary museums that foster a “greater interest” in the art community in Asia, Chow said.

Sotheby’s has been holding auctions Asia since 1973 and will open a flagship “maison” in Hong Kong in July, which will sell pieces for immediate purchase as well as holding regular auctions. “At our our maison, we’ll be bringing material from across the spectrum of what Sotheby’s has to offer, from the remote prehistory all the way to the digital future,” Chow said.

CNBC’s Quek Jie Ann contributed to this report.

Watch The Art of Appreciation on CNBC International

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