A Bull in the Chinese Art Shop

A Bull in the Chinese Art Shop

Paul Stafford for The National

Auctioneers described the triptych as a "monumental museum-quality work from a defining period of the Chinese avant-garde", and the bidders voted with their wallets.

Hong Kong's auction rooms had not seen heat like this for a while, as bidding wars cranked up and estimates were smashed at every lot.

Zhang Xiaogang's painting Forever Lasting Love set an auction record for contemporary Chinese art when it sold at Sotheby's in Hong Kong for more than HK$79 million (Dh37.3m) last week, easily beating the estimated maximum of HK$30m.

The whole region was there and there are strong rumours the buyer of the Zhang painting is from Abu Dhabi.

The focus is China. As the art market in the rest of the world licks its wounds after the global financial crisis, Chinese contemporary art remains hot.

This is the aesthetically pleasing face of the 10.3 per cent increase in China's GDP last year. The country's investment environment remains heavily regulated and investors need a place to go.

Buying contemporary Chinese art is a way of picking up something beautiful and securing a sound investment, as values keep rising. It is also an investment in national treasures, which is no small factor in deciding how to spend money in a communist country.

Zhao Li, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Art and the director of an art market analysis centre, says the Zhang sale is indicative of a changing market.

"Zhang's Forever Lasting Love is a very important piece … and in terms of contemporary Chinese art it is understandable for the price to be so high," says Prof Zhao.

"Chinese art collectors are getting more and more intellectual and more discerning. They prefer to buy those paintings from the point of view of art history, which means a lot of collectors tend towards certain paintings and the price increases.

"Art collecting looks at both the value of the work of art as a work of art, and its investment value, which means it is safer to buy contemporary art than other pieces. The risk is lower, it's easier to get academic approval for its true worth, and it's also easier for the work to have broader appeal."

China is now the world's number one market in terms of fine art auction revenue, according to the Artprice website, which provides news on the art market.

"It took just three years for China to jump from third place [previously occupied by France] in 2007 to first place in 2010, ahead of the UK and the US, the grand masters of the market since the 1950s," the Artprice chief executive Thierry Ehrmann wrote last month.

"The heart of the market now beats in Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai; the new driving hubs of the global art market."

Last year China accounted for 33 per cent of global fine art sales, including paintings, installations, sculptures, drawings, photography and prints, compared with 30 per cent in the US, 19 per cent in the UK and 5 per cent in France.

The global top 10 of artists' ranking includes four Chinese artists based on auction revenue, compared with one in 2009. They include Qi Baishi - who was second only behind Andy Warhol - Zhang Daqian, Xu Beihong and Fu Baoshi.

"The younger generation of Chinese artists is now imposing itself even more forcefully than their older counterparts," wrote Mr Ehrmann.

The Hurun research group says there were 875,000 yuan multimillionaires and 55,000 billionaires in China last year - 6.1 per cent more millionaires and 7.8 per cent more billionaires than the year before."Economic prosperity is driving this. It's not a mystery, as the art market parallels economic development," says Meg Maggio, an arts writer, curator and director of Pekin Fine Arts Gallery in Beijing.

"The Sotheby's sale reflected healthy trends. The works are increasing in value and this is not a bubble. A bubble is something that is going to burst. This is steady growth in price."

Ms Maggio, who is opening a branch of Pekin Fine Arts in Hong Kong in the second half of this year, says what is happening in China reflects a booming market across the whole region, including the Middle East and South East Asia.

"China is obviously the elephant in the room but you should never underestimate the buying activity by other Asian markets, evidenced by Sotheby's and Christie's decision to centre auction activity in Hong Kong," she says.

More than half of the global top 10 contemporary artists for last year were Chinese - Zeng Fanzhi, Chen Yifei, Wang Yidong, Zhang, Liu Xiaodong and Liu Ye - while the only three Americans in the list were Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons and Richard Prince.

Zhang's work was part of the collection belonging to the Belgians Guy and Myriam Ullens, who have been major movers and shakers in the Chinese art market for many years.

But the couple decided to clear out some of the collection, and Mr Ullens is turning his attention to supporting and promoting a younger generation of artists, as he did with the first generation 25 years ago.

"The legendary Ullens Collection represented the visualisation of the Chinese nation's history through works of art, with many works which traced the birth of Contemporary Chinese Art in the 1980s," says Evelyn Lin, the head of contemporary Asian art at Sotheby's.

The collection combined "quality, rarity and extraordinary provenance", Ms Lin says, which meant there was a lot international interest and extended bidding battles among prospective buyers.

"Buying was from all corners of the world," she says. "Throughout the sale numerous works sold for many multiples of the high estimate and records were set for Zhang Peili, Wang Guangyi, Geng Jianyi, Yu Youhan, Ding Yi, Guan Wei, Liu Wei and many others.

"The opportunity to handle works of such quality and importance from this historic collection marks the height of my career."

Most of the Chinese buyers are corporates or major organisations from property, financial services, new energy companies, road construction companies or the manufacturing sector, says Prof Zhao.

"This kind of buyer always buys art in a series and some are targeting building their own art museum," he says.

While Prof Zhao hesitates to call this a peak of Chinese modern art, he reckons paintings from the 1980s and 1990s are earning high prices because there is limited output since then.

"But most artworks are still only getting low prices," he says. "Chinese contemporary art has been around for 30 years.

"It's a combination of many generations of artists working from different approaches, whereas the market is more simplistic. Everyone rushes after certain famous works by a single artist, showing the market in China is not yet mature.

"I hope in the future the market can focus more on the younger generation, nurture that creativity and develop more complexity."

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