China goldrush continues…

eulogy_by_CYF.jpgOn Sunday Chen Yifei’s “Eulogy of the Yellow River” sold for a hammer price of RMB 40.32m (about US$ 5.25m) at China Guardian’s Spring sale. Painted in the middle of China’s Cultural Revolution, it is an example of the Chinese Socialist Realist style by the then-25-year-old patriotic Chen. The previous record for his work was RMB 4m (about US$500k) for one of his photorealist “pretty girls in traditional costumes and slightly artificial poses” series which have been quite popular. That ten-fold jump was attributed to the fact that this is the first major work of Chen’s to come to market since he unexpectedly died in 2005. But the interesting thing about the local reports on this sale is the constant benchmarking of Chinese Art values against those in the West; as if it was a matter of national pride, and a measure of how China was doing generally in the world. Rather than any comments about an overheated market.

So the heat continues. On May 27 Christies has their Spring Asian Contemporary sale in Hong Kong with the expected selections from Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, Wang GuangYi and Zeng Fanzhi. The point of interest this time is the inclusion of earlier works from these artists, who we are used to seeing at auction, including a really quite interesting Zhang Xiaogang (Portrait in Red from 1993) which clearly presages the later, and excessively popular, Bloodline series. If the heat continues, expect more exceeding of estimates.

WGY__YMJ__ZXG_at_PJY.jpgFor those keen to jump on the “hot five” Chinese artist bandwagon but unwilling to pay 7 (or 8?) figures in hard currency for something to fill a space on the wall, why not head down to PanJiaYuan, Beijing’s world renowned ‘art and curio’ market, and pick up original oil paintings “in the style of” whoever you would like, for US$30 max. (See pictures at right and below taken at PanJiaYuan last weekend.) Now doesn’t that seem reasonable for your own private piece of Chinese Contemporary Art Bubble history?

zxg, ymj at pjy_1.jpgPanJiaYuan is experiencing a demand bubble of its own. 6 weeks ago there was only one such stall offering Zhang Xiaogang copies. This weekend there were three stalls offering similar pictures and the range of contemporary artists available had grown. “Very popular with laowai” I was told. (Laowai being foreigners.) It will be interesting to see how this little sub-market develops.

1 thought on “China goldrush continues…”

  1. The national pride factor that Ian points out in these Chinese media comparisons with western benchmarks is actually a major psychological factor in pushing sales at auction, particularly in classical art, and it’s growing more so in contemporary art. In classical art major pieces that come from within China are sold with the proviso that they will never be exported. But major pieces that come ‘back to the motherland’ from abroad are consistently trumpeted as opportunities for Chinese to reclaim ‘lost’ treasures. I think this has a definite impact on the buying fever attached to these items.

    In the same weekend of auctions that the Chen Yifei was sold, China Guardian sold about 20 pieces of mediocre Qing dynasty porcelain de-accessioned from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. The works were mostly flawed, some with major staple repairs, but they all sold, and on an average of 2-3 times their estimates. The rhetoric surrounding the pre-sale and post-sale advertising by the auction house was full of nationalist sentiment. Consider the name China Guardian after all.

    Whether this nationalist motivator pushes the prices of the works beyond their real market value is an interesting question, particularly in the case of the Chen Yifei painting. That painting now holds the mainland record for an oil painting, trailing after the Hong Kong world record sale of the Xu Beihong painting of last March by about RMB 30million. Then again if you consider Chen Yifei a contemporary painter, then this price is now the world record for any contemporary Chinese oil painting. But even if the passions of nationalist pride are the reason the sale was buoyed so high, does that have any negative effect on the long-term value of the painting? The work is now and forever worth at least this much. Considering that the overall trajectory for collection of all Chinese art, including contemporary, seems to indicate greater influence if not overall control by mainland Chinese buyers, I think we can expect more Chinese art records to come from Beijing, whether driven by nationalist pride or by the booming art market in general. Either way a record is a record.

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