When the hammer came down at an evening auction during China Guardian’s spring sale in May 2011, Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree, a 1946 ink painting by Qi Baishi (齊白石), one of China’s 20th-century masters, had drawn a startling price: US$65.4 million. No Chinese painting had ever fetched so much at auction, and by the end of the year, the sale appeared to have global implications, helping China surpass the US as the world’s biggest art and auction market. However, two years after the auction, Qi’s masterpiece is still languishing in a warehouse in Beijing. The winning bidder has refused to pay for the piece since doubts were raised about its authenticity.
Buyers also failed to pay for the second-most expensive work reported to have sold in that session, and they similarly balked at paying for the third, fourth, sixth and ninth-most expensive works — a striking pattern of default that has been repeated at auction houses across the country.
“The market is in a very dubious stage,” said Alexander Zacke, an expert in Asian art who runs Auctionata, an international online auction house. “No one will take results in mainland China very seriously.”
Indeed, even as the art world marvels at China’s booming market, a six-month review by the New York Times found that many of the sales — transactions reported to have produced as much as a third of the country’s auction revenue in recent years — did not actually take place.
Just as problematic, the market is flooded with forgeries, often mass produced, and has become a breeding ground for corruption, as business executives curry favor with officials by bribing them with art.
Fraud is certainly no stranger to the international art world, but experts warn that the market in China is particularly vulnerable because, like many industries in the country, it has expanded too fast for regulators to keep pace.
Indeed, few areas of business offer as revealing a view of the socialist society’s lurch toward capitalism as the art market. Like many luxury businesses in China, the explosion of buyers for art has been fueled by the pent-up consumerism of the newly rich. The demand is so great that last year, in a country that barely had an art market two decades ago, reported auction revenues were up 900 percent over 2003 — to US$8.9 billion. (The US auction market for last year was US$8.1 billion.)
While the luxury-buying habits in China often mimic those in the West, the demand for art reflects uniquely Chinese tastes. While the rest of the world bids up Pollocks and Rothkos, Chinese buyers typically pursue traditional Chinese pieces, some by 15th-century masters, and others by modern artists, like Chang Dai-chien (張大千), one of many who have chosen to work in that old style. Even today, the name of Chang, a 20th-century artist known for his landscapes, hardly registers internationally outside collecting circles, though in recent years he has joined Picasso and Warhol as one of the best-selling artists in the world.
This very reverence for the cultural past is now contributing greatly to the surge in forgeries. Artists are trained to imitate the old Chinese masters, and they routinely produce high-quality copies of paintings and other works, such as ceramics and jade artifacts. That tradition has intersected with the newly lucrative art market, in which reproductions that so many have the skills to create are often offered as the real thing. It would be hard to create a more fertile environment for the proliferation of fakes.