It’s a good time to be doing business in China – particularly if your business is art. While the financial crisis may be inhibiting creativity throughout the rest of the world, China is a place where young, contemporary artists can thrive. China is now home to almost half of the world’s 100 top-earning contemporary artists.
Chen Yifei is one of them. In May, his large oil painting Wind of Mountain Village went under the hammer for almost 69 million yuan ($11 million). It set a record for Beijing at the time, according to Artprice, a French company that tracks global deals. These, and other purchases, have boosted China, in economic terms, to the top of the fine-art marketplace. But should this feat be applauded or rather a cause for concern? Many argue that the value of the contemporary Chinese art market is more significant than a handful of receipts, and others are not getting their hopes up about the true nature of China’s art market.
The Chinese contemporary art market is still very thin. Don Thompson, professor of marketing and economics in the MBA program at the University of Toronto, recently wrote in The Art Economist that a significant chunk of the top of the nation’s contemporary art works has been purchased by a handful of wealthy mainlanders (including Zhang Rui and his wife. They are known as “super collectors” and are subject to follow-the-leader style behavior.
Western demand for contemporary Chinese art is small, but growing. China Guardian Auction Co Ltd, the second-biggest auctioneer in terms of revenue last financial year for instance, opened its first overseas office in New York this month. “We are taking the American market very seriously,” said Li Yanfeng, the auctioneer’s manager of contemporary art.
Another factor to consider is that several Chinese banks have art-investment funds. China Mingsheng Banking Corp Ltd is said to have been the first to start seriously investing in Chinese contemporary art. In April it bought out the entire collection of Huang Yong Ping’s Leviathanation – an installation of a giant fish sticking out of a train – from Tang Contemporary Art Gallery in Beijing’s 798 Da Hanzi Art District. Purchases by banks represent a high percentage of the contemporary Chinese market than the art funds in any Western country, as indicated by Thompson.
Tang Contemporary Art Gallery’s head curator Wang Beili suggested an investor could buy a hundred different art works from young artists for the same price as a very expensive artwork and possibly get a bigger return. “Chinese collectors don’t have the taste or the time to learn about this. The way Chinese people buy art is similar to the way they buy brands such as Louis Vuitton and Hermes,” she said. According to Artpiece, Chinese buyers are attracted to the social prestige linked to the acquisition of works of art.
photo credit: tang contemporary art