It’s been interesting to track the auctions from afar this week, but as I read through the results, something was nagging me: Chinese contemporary art – arguably the fastest rising, most speculative, art-market segment ever – is essentially absent in the evening sales, which is where the big deals go down and where stratospheric results rocket artists into the market’s pantheon.
Last year, the auction houses trumpetted the fact that they had included Chinese work in their Postwar & Contemporary sales. Yet Sotheby’s had precisely zero Chinese artists in its sale Tuesday, and last night at Christie’s there was only one. (Yue Minjun’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe pulled $1.2M against an estimate of $
I’m not quite sure how to interpret this. Was no one trying trying to flip their Chinese contemporary paintings? That’s doubtful. Are the collectors or auctioneers thinking these works will go higher in Hong Kong? More likely. Or maybe the auction houses feared that a market backlash was due after all the China hype?
On this last point: A critical backlash has definitely begun, at least in England. Richard Dorment of the Telegraph recently wrote:
One of the most deadening trends in recent years has been the Great Chinese Art Swindle. For years now we’ve been hearing about the vibrancy of the art coming out of Beijing and Shanghai – and it’s all baloney. Time after time, I’ve gone to shows of this stuff only to find that it wasn’t worth taking the trouble to review, only to read a few months later about the record prices the very same works were fetching at auction.
That is how it is with Chinese art today: as the prices soar, the values plummet. The situation is at its silliest at the contemporary end of the market, where a crop of repetitive Chinese painters trained at communist art schools to do the same thing over and over again have suddenly become the tigers of the auction rooms. In recent months, Zhang Xiaogang, a churner-out of a seemingly endless procession of blank Chinese faces, has outsold Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.
Well, that’s certainly not the case this week in New York – Koons racked up $5.8M at Sothebys on Tuesday night, while Hirst hit $14M over the last two nights. And they both have horses in the race at Phillips de Pury tonight
Here’s a notion: Given the unprecedentedly risky guarantees the auction houses had to give in order to secure work for these record auctions, and given that the people looking to consign Chinese contemporary stars probably sought huge guarantees based on recent results, and given that a Chinese ConArt backlash has seemed inevitable to insiders for months, maybe the auctioneers simply preferred to bet on the new blue-chippers like Hirst and Koons. Thoughts?