The 2013 Market for Chinese Painters Other Than Zao Wou-ki
Text / Odile Chen
The past few auction seasons were characterized by a wait-and-see attitude among most investors, and buyers were exceedingly careful and rational in bidding at auctions. At the same time, collectors kept a close eye on market tendencies and were still willing to pay good money for interesting lots. We should not forget that collecting art can be an addictive pursuit, and therefore is largely resistant to the effects of economic cycles. For example, Christie’s Hong Kong evening auction of May 25, 2013, attracted overwhelming interest from collectors and investors, and fetched a good sell-through rate. A little later this year, Ravenel Taipei’s June 2 Special Auction of Works by Shiy De-jinn saw every last item sold: a white glove auction that attracted significant media attention and further highlighted this spring’s bullish art market.
By comparison, China’s auction market was a lot more sluggish over the past six months, failing to impress in the same way as Hong Kong and Taiwan. One reason for this was a crackdown on art smuggling launched by Chinese authorities in 2012, meaning that from now on the import and export of valuable artwork is subjected to much stronger scrutiny, forcing dealers and collectors to declare at customs many items that so far were moved across the borders with no questions asked. This has particularly affected the market for high-end items, and consequently induced major Beijing auction houses to switch base to other locations, especially Hong Kong. The “Pearl of the East,” traditionally blessed with a wide range of auction houses, is further consolidating its status as one of the few top destinations for art connoisseurs. This is also reflected in the fact that Art Basel, the world’s premier international art show for modern and contemporary works, this year added “Art Basel Hong Kong” to its Basel and Miami events, an important development that garnered much attention on the global art market.
The reasons Art Basel chose Hong Kong as a new, additional venue for its art shows have everything to do with the city’s many competitive advantages, in particular its position as one of Asia’s main financial centers. Hong Kong’s auction houses are where the heart of Asia’s art market, and indeed much of the global market, is beating, not least because the city also serves as the most important gateway to China’s markets. Add to that convenience of access, a multilingual environment, and tax exemption policies, and it is easy to see why an increasing number of international art galleries are opening branches here, including two global key players like White Cube and Gagosian. Having always had a fair share of Western galleries, Hong Kong is now positively brimming with art shows and cultural events. The 2013 spring auctions all recorded good results, partly because the first edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, timed to coincide with a series of other events, managed to draw impressive numbers of international collectors, thus helping to make the spring season a resounding success.
In response to economic pressures, most collectors are now adopting a more rational and cautious approach, carefully selecting items for purchase. So-called “classic works” by “popular and well-established painters” of 20th-century modern art therefore offer the best guarantee of brisk sales: these are the kind of superior works every art collector dreams of buying, so auction houses that are able to liven up their portfolio with works by these “classic artists” and “great names” have a very good chance of hosting successful events. In terms of traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting, these great names include Zhang Daqian, Qi Baishi, Li Keran, Fu Baoshi, while the most popular Chinese painters in the Western style are Sanyu, Wu Guanzhong, Lin Fengmian, Zao Wou-ki, and Chu Teh-chun, as well as artists of special historical significance, such as realistic-style painters Wu Zuoren or Xu Beihong.
Since the market for classic works and artists is showing stable growth, and has become a firm focus of buyers’ attention, potential sellers are extremely reluctant to part with such coveted items and tend to sell them only when they have no other choice. Once you have sold an item, it may be very difficult or impossible to buy it back for the same price in the future. All this has made the putting together of attractive portfolios more difficult, and auction houses everywhere are striving harder than ever to add some of the best-known works and authors to their lot lists.
The news of Chinese-French abstract painter Zao Wou-ki’s death on April 9 this year dropped like a bomb on the global art market. Immediately, countless collectors and dealers rushed to galleries or auctions to try and acquire some of his work. Soon, not only works on paper, but even prints by Zao experienced a rapid surge in value, not to mention his oil paintings who had already been commanding extremely high prices long prior to his demise. Collectors who had previously been considering putting up for sale some of their works by Zao now reconsidered, often deciding to hold out for higher prices. The situation was quite similar in other market segments, such as oil paintings by Sanyu, large-scale paintings by Wu Guanzhong, and the Snow Scenes Series by Chu Teh-chun, all of which high-end items that rarely surfaced at auction in 2013 and continue to carry prohibitive price tags. Two examples include Sanyu’s “Two Standing Nudes,” which sold for HK$44.67 million at Christie’s May 25 evening sale in Hong Kong, and Chu Teh-chun’s “Nature hivernale,” sold for HK$ 17.44 million at Ravenel’s spring auction. In addition, several oil paintings by Zao Wou-ki all achieved prices above HK$10 million at these two auctions.
With an insufficient number of high-end items finding their way into the market as owners wait for prices to rise further, most collectors find themselves unable to dip into this segment, and instead focus on more affordable lots. As a result, items in the medium and lower price range have become very popular, including smaller oil paintings, sketches, prints or other works on paper by well-established modern andcontemporary artists. For example, sketches, color-painted pottery and prints by Zao Wou-ki and Chu Teh-chun have become much sought-after items.
Among modern and contemporary overseas Chinese artists, Zao and Chu are the most prominent exponents of abstract painting, and they have set the market alight for other abstract painters, such as George Chann, Lalan (Xie Jinglan), Chuang Che, Yang Chihung, Liu Kuo-sung, Hsiao Chin, Su Xiaobai, and Wang Yan Cheng: their works have appreciated in value, and are set to continue to do so. Another trend is that in recent years, the art market has profited from an increasing demand for modern art, in particular abstract paintings and sculptures, from owners/buyers of upscale residences and luxury apartments, who are looking to give their homes a touch of flair and cultural sophistication.
With the exception of their most famous paintings, prices for works by well-known 20th century Chinese painters such as Walasse Ting or Shiy De-jinn usually range from several 100 thousand to several million New Taiwan dollars, and are thus well within the budget of collectors who shy away from top dollar items, a fact that is confirmed by a recent surge of interest in their work. In the contemporary artists segment, Taiwan’s Tzu-chi Yeh is a long-standing favorite with collectors, and his works have repeatedly set new price records over the past few seasons. Shanghai-born Pang Jiun’s paintings have become much sought after lately, with a growing number of Asian collectors inquiring about his work. Chiu Ya-tsai, a recently deceased painter from Taiwan specializing in portraits, has long been popular with international buyers, and his death from illness in April has given prices a further boost. Virtually all his lots offered at auction this year found a buyer, often at 2-3 times the previously established prices.
Meanwhile, several celebrated contemporary Japanese artists, such as Yayoi Kusama, Yoshitomo Nara, Takashi Murakami, Kohei Nawa, and Yoshitaka Amano, each continue to maintain a loyal following of aficionados and collectors. Chinese contemporary artists remain in something of a slump, yet medium-range lots by Cai Guo-Qiang, Zhou Chunya, and Zeng Fanzhi are bucking this trend, with the vast majority of their works at auction finding new owners.
Asian contemporary ink wash, in the past a much neglected segment, is rapidly turning into the market’s new darling, a development that is being driven by Western investors eyeing its potential for high future returns. After building the hype for contemporary Chinese artists in general, Western critics, experts, museums, galleries and art shows are now packaging and promoting ink wash as the latest thing, a determined push that is of course also a reflection of art collectors’ changing tastes.
While ink and wash traces its roots back to traditional Chinese painting, in terms of style, form and conception its contemporary forms are heavily influenced by Western aesthetic values. Many collectors find this blend of Chinese and Western characteristics highly attractive, and museums, galleries, and art shows are doing their best to feed this trend. As a result, at recent auctions and private sales in the Greater China area, almost all ink and wash lots were sold successfully, with artists ranging from Xu Bing and Gu Wenda to Xu Lei and Liu Kuo-sung. The surge in interest in contemporary ink and wash has also positively impacted the market for early Taiwanese ink wash artists, such as Yu Cheng-yao and Shiy De-jinn, who are now capturing the interest of a new generation of collectors.
A number of new faces have recently made their appearance in the market, and though some of them lack previous experience at art auctions, they yet display considerable enthusiasm and buying power. As the portfolios of auction houses are becoming more diversified and less orthodox, the composition of many auction crowds is also in the process of undergoing subtle changes. Over the past decade, cartoon and anime culture, as well as related items such as plastic figures, toys and dolls, have gradually become a part of the mainstream art scene, and a collectors’ market is now building via social media platforms such as Facebook, Weibo, and the entire blogosphere. This trend is further boosted by celebrities who, as part of their strategy to enhance their mass appeal, write about personal experiences at art shows or buying pop art items.
Some auction houses have begun to attract new buyers by adding more unconventional items to their portfolios, such as the more widely circulated pumpkin sculptures by Yayoi Kusama, limited edition prints and stuffed dolls by Takashi Murakami, RIMOWA luggage and doggy radios by Yoshimoto Nara, and rare ceramic plates with orchid motives by Zao Wou-ki. Such lots usually achieve good prices at auction, a sign that art consumption is becoming a popular pastime among widening sections of the public.
On a global scale, we may observe that collectors tend to become younger and younger, and an increasing number of them are women. In order to draw more people to art collecting, auction houses and galleries are pushing smaller events such as “Young Art Fairs” and “Affordable Art Fairs.” Over the past decade or so, these have been gaining in importance and influence, also as platforms for younger artists.
Not everybody can afford to buy high-end oil paintings by Zao Wou-ki, but outside of the best-known works by the most renowned artists there are still a lot of very attractive items waiting to be discovered and appreciated. All potential art collectors need to do is explore their preferences and tastes: what matters most is that the art you buy makes your life more beautiful and sophisticated—and if on top of that it turns out to be a good investment as well, you will really have hit the jackpot!