Creating that next hot artist is an "idiot's game," says Liang Changsheng, art director of the Contemporary Artwork Auction firm in Beijing. "First get critics to write about him," he says. (The critics are paid by artists, auction houses and galleries for this service.) "Then organize exhibitions to introduce his work." (That's paid for, too, even at the most prestigious national museums.) "Then you can put the work in auction with an establishing price and buy it back yourself in order to set an example for the public. Of course it would be better if some other bidders join in."
Liang and many others argue that no trick is new in the art business. They note that in the West famous artists historically have used assistants, galleries sometimes buy their own clients' work at auction to "protect prices," and Christie's and Sotheby's often guarantee minimum sale prices. The Chinese operators, though, appear to be taking Western practices much further. To the critical eye, the pay-for-play economic climate of China has merged with the insular self-dealing ethos of the art world to form a unique Chinese hybrid that cuts corners in the chase for money.