Mon, Jan 12, 2009 - Page 11 News List

Chinese art market needs health check

OVERPRICED Insiders say that infatuation with Chinese art led to mass attempts by artists to establish commercial value with worn-out imagery from the Cultural Revolution


A Chinese artist walks by a gallery in the 798 art district of Beijing on Dec. 23. The global financial crisis has hit the Chinese art market, after it overtook France in the international sales rankings. The amount spent in the country on art rose 78 percent from 2006, but recently some 40 percent to 60 percent of the artworks are left unsold in recent Christie’s and Sotheby’s art auctions in Hong Kong.


Art markets around the world have taken a hit from the global financial crisis and, analysts said, it could very well lead to a correction for the star performer: contemporary Chinese art.

After a stellar period that began less than a decade ago and made previously unknown artists famous virtually overnight, a less exuberant mood is now spreading — and, some say, that may actually be good.

“Perhaps we will witness a healthy correction,” said Berenice Angremy, the director of Thinking Hands, an organization in Beijing’s 798 art district that specializes in cultural events.

In Hong Kong, bids at auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s are disappointingly low, while in China galleries close down, leading to the question: Is the bubble about to burst?

“The market for contemporary Chinese art has seen unprecedented growth in the past five years — from US$3 million in 2004 to US$194 million in 2007,” said Evelyn Lin (林家如), a Sotheby’s executive. “So it wouldn’t be surprising if it started stabilizing a bit.”

In Beijing, Poly Auction (保利國際拍賣) has felt the impact of the crisis, too, and has had to adjust its prices accordingly.

“On average prices have gone down. But good artists can still get good prices for good works,” said Xu Juan (徐娟), director of Poly Auction’s international department.

For example, when Xu auctioned off a painting by celebrity artist Zeng Fanzhi (曾凡志) early last month, he managed to sell it for US$900,000.

But of course, this was not particularly astonishing for an artist whose painting Mask Series 1996 No 6 sold for close to US$10 million when put on the block by Christie’s in Hong Kong in May.

It was a record for contemporary Chinese art, and it was almost matched one month later, when a canvas by Liu Xiaodong (劉曉東) fetched US$7.95 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.

But, market insiders say, the infatuation with Chinese art led to a large number of artists attempting to establish their commercial value with worn-out imagery from the Cultural Revolution or pop-art motifs that had long since lost their novelty value.

“There have been lots of copies, and a sort of avant-garde art that has been outdated in the west for 30 or 40 years,” a Hong Kong-based art agent said.

“The prices were exaggerated. Young artists, still in school, were selling their paintings for US$100,000,” a gallery manager at 798 said. “It had lost touch with reality. The crisis will put this straight.”

The past five or six years marked a regular boom, and it was not always healthy, Angremy said.

“There have been some true artists, excellent artists, but there has also been a lot of excess and speculation,” she said.

“More and more people have suspected the artists and their galleries of buying their own art to make sure the prices didn’t fall. Even if this practice is not unique to China, it may be more widespread here than elsewhere,” she said.

Meg Maggio, manager of Beijing Fine Arts in Caochangdi, another Beijing art district, agreed that the crisis could help rid the Chinese art market of some of its less savory characteristics.

“In the end, the Chinese market will do well. It will emerge healthier and more locally focused,” she said.

“It is to be hoped that in the coming months the salons and galleries will become less commercial, more experimental and, in the final analysis, more exciting for the public and the collectors,” she said.

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