Go West
He turned his car business into a stunning collection of contemporary art. Ralph Taylor talks to Yang Bin about bringing Europe to China

We are chatting in the busy Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong when Yang Bin breaks into laughter. At this point, he no longer needs his translator. "No, too tired," he says firmly. The question that so amused him? Does he think he will open an art space to display his extraordinary collection of contemporary art to the public. "The easy life," he grins from behind his colourful glasses. "I'm just having fun collecting, you know."

Yet Yang Bin has put together a contemporary collection of exemplary seriousness and impressive taste. As well as work by Liu Xiaodong, Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi, he has pieces by leading Western artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Louise Bourgeois, Jörg Immendorf, Antony Gormley and Nam June Paik.

How, for example, did he end up with work by such an intellectual artist as Mario Merz? "It was my wife, Yan Qing, who chose it," he deadpans. "She has better eyes. She knows which artworks are good and is good at remembering artists' names. So we collect together."

Even in the brief time we have together, it is clear that Yang Bin is a man who enjoys life – and does not take himself too seriously. He's keen, for instance, to discuss the relative merits of wine and whisky – his preference is whisky, though he says he can drink far more red wine – and recommends attending a whisky fair: "You can drink the whole day for free," he chuckles.

Born in Beijing and educated at Peking University, Yang Bin had started a company in Shanghai in the 1980s, importing American cars into China. When it was a success, he bought "a big house" – and, he says self- deprecatingly, needed something to decorate the walls. Yang Bin started by reading up on art history and visiting galleries, and began to attend art fairs and auctions. His first purchases – in 2001 – were traditional Chinese ink paintings, but his attention was soon drawn to the West.

What made you decide to look at Western artists: was it a recommendation, a growing interest of your own, or a feel for the market? "Collecting is like eating," Yang Bin says. "People choose what they like and know. Nowadays, China is no longer closed, so Chinese collectors have access to all the information globally, right? They get a chance to see Western art and develop an interest in collecting it. For the younger generation of Chinese, they study abroad and they live abroad, which means they are more into Western culture. It's all because of globalisation.

"For me, it was in, I think, 2005 that I started to go to Europe – to Basel – and that opened my eyes to Western artists. Compared with Chinese art, there are a lot of artists of global standing, artists who are important in art history. And, compared to the craziness of the Chinese contemporary art market at that time, they were well priced." But his collecting has always been as much a matter of the heart as the head. "I don't exactly buy the work for myself, you know, or for the investment. I think it's a kind of act of faith."

Did the opening of Art Basel Hong Kong help bring Chinese collectors to Western contemporary art? "Art Basel is really developing fast, and it's better and better each year. At the beginning, the booths were all very much local artists. It felt like Western galleries didn't bring their best works – it was as if they don't care about China. But now it's quite a change: you see all the best galleries bring the top-quality works to Hong Kong."

Yang Bin is a keen visitor to art galleries on his travels – picking out the Tates in London, MoMA in New York, the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Venice and UCCA in Beijing as particular favourites – but the influence of Chinese curators on Western exhibitions is also now beginning to show: in Shanghai, Zendai MOMA had a group exhibition of Immendorff, Markus Lüpertz, A.R. Penck and Georg Baselitz a decade ago, then last year there was a Penck retrospective at the Fosun Foundation – which is now going to be picked up back in Britain.
Yang Bing smiles: he has just bought a painting by Penck. "When I started collecting in Europe, the other artists' prices were rising, but German Expressionists were undervalued – that's the reason Chinese collectors started to look at them again. There's a similar thing going on with Abstract Expressionism, with many critics, curators and artists – I think like Cecily Brown – starting to look at those artists again. I think that Chinese collectors, they're really buying with their brains: they're actually looking at the investment. And they think this group is undervalued, so they like it too. I believe the German Expressionists will be appreciated for a really long time."

Personal relationships have been fundamental to Yang Bin as he built up his collection. "Soon after I started getting interested in art, I got to know a dealer from Beijing who had opened a Shanghai gallery. Around 1999, 2000, they started to recommend some works, and I already had a RMB1,000,000 budget [around £100,000] so I bought dozens – starting with Ai Xuan, a very important contemporary Chinese realist. I guess I started at the right time."

So that was when he caught the collecting bug? Yang Bin laughs again. "Yes: because I was buying work, I got to know artists. Then I found myself involved in artistic circles, participating in events... I was well on the way." He pauses for a moment. "But another reason I got to know people was because I started to help them. For example, there was one lady who works for a major Shanghai auction house now. But 20 years ago, she was just a young girl working in a gallery. I bought a lot of works from her – but I was just helping out: I didn't really expect for the collection to increase in value. Somehow it all comes back round."

Are there any collectors that you admire? "There's this Chinese collector, Lu Bang and he's a lawyer. He's a huge collector, but what appeals to me is that his collections are all completely different. He has his own ideas about what he's doing. And Eugene Yao: he's a pioneer. I am so impressed by his concentration on collecting, the way he combines a spiritual response to art with all his knowledge. I'm more casual about it, you know, but I really admire their hard work."

Ralph Taylor is Bonhams Global Head of Post-War & Contemporary Art.

The next Modern & Contemporary Art sale at Bonhams Hong Kong is on 30 November.

Contacts

Related auctions