In an upmarket gallery near Hollywood Road in Hong Kong, a middle-aged Swiss woman unfurls a crumpled piece of paper from her handbag and squints at the unfamiliar words written down.
As she struggles to articulate them, the gallery owner is forced to politely correct her pronunciation of the unfamiliar Chinese names on her shopping list.
Within a few minutes, the gallery owner is e-mailing images of the artist's work to the woman's husband, another potential buyer desperate to catch a piece of the booming Chinese market.
The name belongs to one of the new superstars of Chinese art, part of an elite group whose works can fetch prices at auction unequalled by almost any living artist in the world.
But the boom has raised serious concerns about the quality of the art now being churned out -- and what the exploding market says about China itself.
Nicole Schoeni, whose family has run a gallery in Hong Kong since the early 1990s, says wealthy investors trying to get in on the art action have become an almost daily phenomenon. Recently one first-time customer bought nearly US$400,000 in art from her gallery.
"I call them the top 10 wish lists," Schoeni said. "The majority come in for investment rather than any passion for art. They used to buy property but now if they put the piece in auction they can sell it for five times the price straight away."
Schoeni said many of her long-term collectors have been priced out of the market.
Hong Kong is awash with new galleries, many of them peddling the stylized paintings that will attract investors: bright colors, obvious references to the Cultural Revolution, big wide faces and an often overt sexuality.
"A lot of it is total crap," said Johnson Chang (
"[The booming market] is both good and bad for new artists. The danger is everyone starts to copy the successful model. There is a blueprint for how to succeed, and a lot of people get misled into that creative model," he said.
In the past three years, records for Chinese paintings have tumbled at every new auction, but the most staggering prices have been for contemporary artists.
In November, an oil painting by Liu Xiaodong (
The painting, which depicts the controversial Three Gorges Dam, in Hubei Province, was sold for more than three times its expected price to a Chinese businesswoman.
For John Batten, who for nine years ran a gallery in Hong Kong selling contemporary Chinese paintings, the influx of investors with little interest in art is "obscene," but he said it is simply a reflection of China's booming economy.
"In many ways it [the art boom] was inevitable. Culture has always been a partner of trade, especially when the country in question is essentially a dictatorship," he said.
"It is a bit like the ping pong diplomacy of the 1970s, a way of broaching subjects that cannot be discussed," he said, referring to the table tennis matches between China and the US which preceded president Richard Nixon's historic visit to China.