Chinese Contemporary Art Launches Sotheby’s Hong Kong Sales
The market for Contemporary Chinese Art provokes all manner of response. Here’s Howard Rutkowski quoted in the Daily Telegraph:
Howard Rutkowski, referred to the “craziness” of a market in which an artist not found in any museum collection can sell for $1million (£540,000). So frantic is the appetite for Chinese contemporary painting that the record price for a work in the category has been broken three times in the past year. It currently stands at £5.2 million, fetched by Zeng Fanzhi’s “Mask Series 1996 No. 6” at Christie’s in Hong Kong in May.
That kind of activity as attracted the interest of everyone from Western galleries, according to WWD:
“The New York galleries will come here because they want to have the presence and they will want to be a part of China,” says Solway. “People [in China] have so much more than they used to have. It’s exciting for them.”
But the worldwide credit crisis has everyone wondering what will happen to the Asian art market, especially Contemporary Chinese art. Reuters and the Financial Times both have stories out predicting a slowdown. Here’s Reuters:
With the dimming global economic outlook and the flow of credit freezing up in money markets, Sotheby’s CEO for Asia Kevin Ching said its earlier total sales estimate of HK$2 billion ($257.5 million) for the Hong Kong sales could be impacted. “Bearing in mind what has happened since, we’ve approached some consignors to see if … you’d like to lower your reserve (price) or whatever but it’s very interesting that the majority of the people that we contacted seemed comfortable or optimistic enough to stick to the original reserves.”
And the Financial Times, adds these interesting numbers. Note that the expectations for Sotheby’s sale are more than 25% than the previous year:
The auction house is still optimistic the sale will bring in $256m (€186m, £145m), up from $200m last year. “I am not saying that the art market and the financial market go in opposite directions. But experience tells us that the art market usually survives a bit longer than the financial market,” said Kevin Ching, chief executive officer at Sotheby’s Asia. Mr Ching said auction sales continued to thrive for about two years after the 1987 stock market crash and the 1998 Long-Term Capital Management collapse. Worldwide auction sales at Sotheby’s rose 5 per cent in 1998 and 16 per cent in 1999 before dropping more than 10 per cent in 2000.
Barbara Pollack wrote this comprehensive piece on the Chinese Contemporary art market in the September 2008 ARTnews. It’s worth reading again as Sotheby’s week of Hong Kong sales opens. We’ve reduced the story to some key sections below but the whole story is well worth reading.
Those who entered this market in the past three years found Chinese contemporary art to be a surefire bet as prices doubled with each sale. Sotheby’s first New York sale of Asian contemporary art, dominated by Chinese artists, brought a total of $13 million in March 2006; the same sale this past March garnered $23 million, and Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale of Chinese contemporary art in April totaled nearly $34 million. Christie’s Hong Kong has had sales of Asian contemporary art since 2004. Its 2005 sales total of $11 million was dwarfed by the $40.7 million total from a single evening sale in May of this year.
These figures, impressive as they are, do not begin to convey the astounding success at auction of a handful of Chinese artists: Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Cai Guo-Qiang, Liu Xiaodong, and Liu Ye. The leader this year was Zeng Fanzhi, whose Mask Series No. 6 (1996) sold for $9.6 million, a record for Chinese contemporary art, at Christie’s Hong Kong in May.
Zhang Xiaogang, who paints large, morose faces reminiscent of family photographs taken during the Cultural Revolution, has seen his record rise from $76,000 in 2003, when his oil paintings first appeared at Christie’s Hong Kong, to $2.3 million in November 2006, to $6.1 million in April of this year.
Gunpowder drawings by Cai Guo-Qiang, who was recently given a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, sold for well below $500,000 in 2006; a suite of 14 works brought $9.5 million last November. [ . . . ]
For their part, Western galleries are eagerly pursuing Chinese artists, many of whom were unknown just a few years ago. Zeng Fanzhi, for example, has been signed by Acquavella Galleries in New York, in a two-year deal that exceeds $20 million, according to a Beijing gallerist close to the negotiations; William Acquavella declined to comment. Zhang Xiaogang and Zhang Huan have joined PaceWildenstein, and Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaodong showed with Mary Boone last spring. Almost every major New York gallery has recently signed on a Chinese artist: Yan Pei Ming at David Zwirner, Xu Zhen at James Cohan, Huang Yong Ping at Gladstone, Yang Fudong at Marian Goodman, Liu Ye at Sperone Westwater. Their works are entering private and public collections that until now have not shown any particular interest in Asian contemporary art.[ . . . ]
One of the key artists buoyed by this success is Zeng Fanzhi, who is best known for his “Mask” series. Five years ago his works sold for under $50,000. Today he commands prices on the primary market closer to $1 million, with major collectors Charles Saatchi and Jose Mugrabi among his fans. Now preparing for his first solo show at Acquavella in December, he is considered one of the more serious artists on the Beijing scene because he works alone, without the horde of assistants found in most other artists’ studios in China. Still, his lifestyle is typical of that of his equally successful peers. When asked if he owns a mammoth black Hummer parked outside his studio, he answers, “No, that’s an ugly car. I have a G5 Benz.” [ . . . ]
When asked if Poly follows the rules of the Western auction houses, Zhao sharply retorts, “Sometimes even Sotheby’s doesn’t follow the rules.” Or as Gong Jisui, an art-market specialist who is a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, says, “The Chinese learned this game of speculation from the Westerners who played it first.”
The incident to which both men are referring is the sale of the Estella Collection at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on April 9 of this year. The event reaped $18 million for 108 works. (An additional 80 works will be up for sale this month at Sotheby’s New York.) The collection was put together from 2003 to 2006 by New York dealer Michael Goedhuis for a group of investors that included Sacha Lainovic, a director of Weight Watchers International, and Raymond Debbane, CEO of the Invus Group, a private equity firm.
Last year the collection of approximately 200 works was sold to William Acquavella, who consigned it to Sotheby’s. Auction house officials will not discuss financial details, but Sotheby’s had a stake in the collection. After the sale it was widely reported that many of the artists were angered by the auction because, they said, they had sold their works to Goedhuis at discount prices in exchange for promises that the collection would remain together for public display.
“The idea was to keep the collection intact and to see it safely into some institution,” says Goedhuis, who denies that any promises were made. “The ideal situation was to see it with an institution in China, because there is no such collection.” The collection was published in a book, China Onward, with an essay by leading China expert Britta Erickson, and it was exhibited at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem shortly before the sale. According to Goedhuis, because of the rapid rise in prices, the investors chose to sell the collection with hopes that it would not be broken up.[ . . .]
New York dealer Jack Tilton, who has worked with Chinese artists since 1999, says, “All of these artists are hoping that their work finds good homes rather than getting churned in the commercial market. But they have also played a part in this market, embracing capitalism more than we have, in funny ways. They are not naive about any of this stuff.” [ . . . ]
“In Beijing it’s getting increasingly difficult to talk about the Chinese market as a separate entity from the broader Asian art market or the international art market,” says Meg Maggio, an American who came to China in 1988 and ran one of the first galleries in the country, CourtYard, in Beijing, from 1998 to 2006. Now she has her own gallery, Pékin Fine Arts, where she represents an international stable of artists. ”How do you describe the market for a Korean artist showing in China or a Chinese artist living in New York?” she asks, noting that her business can come from South Korean collectors visiting Beijing or European companies doing business in China.