Auctionmania: Where are the Chinese artists?

Yue Minjin, Le Dejeuner Sur L'herbe, 1995It’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 $500-700K – a perfectly respectable result, granted, yet it represents less than 0.5 percent of the evening’s total take.) Tonight, Phillips de Pury has four Chinese pieces among its 74 lots, but none of them appear to be really major works – their combined estimates total only $800K-$1.15M.

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.

A few days later

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?

2 thoughts on “Auctionmania: Where are the Chinese artists?”

  1. Well my first thought is that we live in a funny old world when Damien Hirst is considered a “blue chipper”. But I think you are right, Marc; the auction houses are (thank goodness) finally becoming a little wary of trotting out a constant stream of almost exactly the same images, sale after sale. In a supposedly seminal market and period one would expect to see much more depth, in terms of choice of strong artists, and then development in the artists that are leading the way. In Chinese Contemporary, at least at auction, we see neither. But how could it be otherwise? It is too soon.

    Christie’s has made a reasonable choice in deciding to go backwards in the artists’ ouevre for the upcoming Hong Kong sale, since there seems to be little movement forward. But surely buyers will soon start to get as tired as the critics of seeing the same work, time and time again, and as wary of the huge volume?

    But I think this also points to another, more global, market problem. At this time when there are any number of auction houses chasing work to sell, and a plethora of buyers happy to part with fresh new money, the system is running out of quality to sell. Hence this headlong rush into any new market the auction houses can find and the invention of new stars to headline these new markets. But that means new artists with limited history and insufficient variance of work to hold the interest of a buyer seeking development of an artist’s work in their collection (or is that now an old fashioned notion…). As long as the credibility of the auction houses holds and the credulity of the buyers supports it, this move holds.

    But surely at some point someone is going to shout out “the Emperor has no clothes”? And that may be what we are starting to see from the journalists in London.

  2. I think that critics and buyers alike have certainly had their fill of Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun faces on end, and while the prices probably won’t plummet, the number of works sold will slow to a few per auction. The major houses aren’t including as many big works in evening sales both because interest in the work is fading as prices move astronomically beyond the quality of the work and also because works are becoming harder to find. The last time I chatted with Sotheby’s Zhang Xiaoming she was stressed and pressed to find good works or any works for the upcoming auction.

    As for the gap before the next clear wave of international blue-chip Chinese artists is established, I think it may be longer than expected. The explosion propelled artists like Zhang, Fang and Yue forward, and they’ve stagnated. Now, in light of the critical tone that everyone is noticing applied to their works (and justly) it seems the logical next phase of buying would be a bit more cautious, with eyes set on those artists with long-term intentions. But this is the logic of an established international art world perspective, as logical as it can be said to be.

    Looking at things from a slightly different perspective though, the Chinese mainland market is unpredictable, and also separate in many ways from the international auction circuit, with its own characteristics and trends. The mainland Chinese market could easily spur on world auction records in contemporary art for artists outside of international critical or intellectual approval. Undereducated and speculative buyers, use of artworks to shuffle money, to bribe, and intricate bidding to elevate prices also still plague the market here and can drive up prices on mediocre artists. It’s intriguing from a sociological or economic perspective, but from an arts discourse perspective it’s frustrating and saddening.

    But I think the emperor is wearing a least a few bits. He’s not a complete fraud.

    Many artists actually refuse to participate in auction. Many of the better galleries pressure their artists to refrain from auction as well. There is a growing consciousness among most artists and many more forward-minded, often foreign-run, galleries here, that the auction market can ruin a young to mid-career artist. Artists with such mindsets reestablish credibility for Chinese artists as a whole. There are plenty of them around now, they’re just not as well-known or high-grossing as the leading figures of the cynical realism movement. Their value will continue to rise, but more steadily and for more rational reasons, and probably not as high as their predecessors. But that’s all for the better.

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