Mar 24th 2007
Sotheby’s woos buyers from mainland China
ALL manner of wonderful wares have been on sale in New York during Asia Week, which ended yesterday. Cups and bowls and vases and vessels, made of everything from rhinoceros horn to porcelain, celadon and jade. But it was the auction of contemporary art, more than any other, that demonstrated how Asian buying is changing.
The contemporary auction market has expanded fast in the past two years. In 2004 Sotheby’s and Christie’s between them sold $22m-worth of contemporary Asian art, which included photography and paintings. Two years on that figure had jumped ten times, to $190m. The growth was especially steep for Sotheby’s. In 2004 its contemporary Asian art sales totalled just $3m. By 2006 they had leapt to $70m.
It was only a year ago that Sotheby’s held its first sale of contemporary Asian art in New York. Both auction houses had hosted sales in Hong Kong before that, but these offered mostly local art to local buyers.
Selling Asian art in America posed quite a different challenge.
On the one hand there were Western buyers, with a different aesthetic and history. A small number had already begun buying Chinese art in Shanghai and Beijing. But their aim was often speculative. Who knew how many more collectors might be interested, if any? And then there were the Asian, particularly mainland Chinese buyers. Sotheby’s was keen to attract more wealthy mainlanders to New York. But how?
In the event, Sotheby’s March 2006 sale brought in $13.8m, and 20 of the artists represented saw their work sell for record prices. Some pieces went for more than ten times the pre-sale estimates, though it is unclear whether this was the result of new-won popularity or a sign of Sotheby’s inexperience at setting estimates.
This year’s sale nearly doubled the 2006 figure, bringing in $25.3m, and the market is visibly more mature. Buyers were pickier, happy to bid high for select works while refusing others. A small number of artists again saw their work sell for record prices. Yue Minjun’s “Goldfish” (pictured below) shows 16 identikit Chinese men standing in line at the balustrade of a white bridge, laughing as they look down into the water at a solitary goldfish. Six bidders fought for this 1993 work, which was sold eventually to an anonymous buyer on the telephone for $1.38m against a pre-sale estimate of $700,000. None of Mr Yue’s four other pictures in the sale fetched more than $240,000. Buyers were equally particular about other lots; many sold within the estimate, while some did not sell at all.
Mr Yue’s laughing men, Zhang Xiaogang’s creepy pink babies with their outsized genitals and Zeng Fanzhi’s cartoon twins with their mask-like faces have all been bought by Westerners and Asian collectors alike. But one school—the photorealists—has an almost exclusively Chinese following. By offering 41 paintings of this kind, Sotheby’s was taking a gamble that it could attract new buyers from the mainland to New York.
To Westerners, who value the many innovations of modernist painting, such realism may seem sentimental, slavish and retrograde. But to Chinese collectors, these technically skilled artists, many of whom came of age in the 1970s, tried to see past the propaganda and capture the essential beauty of Chinese life.
Not surprisingly, women and the countryside feature strongly, but even here the images vary enormously. Works by Shanghai-born Chen Danqing depict tribal women with yaks, long woollen dresses and elaborate hairdos; prices for the artist ranged from $90,000-168,000. Wang Yidong’s “Yi River”—which fetched $801,600, more than twice the low estimate—depicts a young woman with pigtails standing on a flat stone as if edging across a river. Above her, in almost Freudian counterpoint, lies another woman (or perhaps it is the same one), asleep and possibly dreaming.
Leng Jun’s “Five Pointed Star” proved the realists’ stellar offering, realising $1.22m against a pre-sale estimate of $350,000-450,000. Painted against a black background, the star appears to be made of bits of rough scrap metal that have been folded and soldered together. The surface is depicted in minute detail, but it is the star’s symbolism that gives real feeling to the painting. It might be old and wrinkled, but despite its battered condition the star resiliently holds its form.
Sotheby’s chose well. Mainland Chinese collectors bought 22 of the photorealist paintings in the sale. Half of those lots, 11 in all, went to six mainland Chinese buyers who had never bought art in New York before.
The “Contemporary Art Asia: China, Korea, Japan” sale was at Sotheby’s, New York, on March 21st