“Lotus and Mandarin Ducks” by Zhang Daqian that sold for $24.5 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in May 2011 (photo via bloomberg.com)

Proof of the Chinese art market blowing up can no longer be denied. On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that two Chinese artists Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) and Qi Baishi (1864-1957) reign supreme in the art market, replacing Picasso as the top earner for 2011. Artprice has ranked Picasso as the highest grossing artist for the past 13 years, but with overall sales of  $506.7 million this year, Daqian easily unseated the Cubism master. Meanwhile, Picasso tumbled down to fourth place, one below Andy Warhol, with total sales of only $311.6 million.

Elizabeth Hammer, a specialist in Chinese Classical and Modern Paintings at Christie’s, told Hyperallergic that Daqian’s rise to the top of the art market is no surprise. “Not only was he a prolific artist who created something like 5,000 works in his lifetime, but there is also an enormous amount of his paintings on the market right now,” she says.

According to Hammer, Daqian’s age has a lot to do with it:

“Daqian died in 1983, so now many of his contemporaries who were given works by the artist directly are now figuring out what to do with the paintings. These works do well on the market because they are reliably authentic.”

Traditional Chinese art has always been an auction favorite, but there’s no question that China’s growing economy and thriving art market have played a role in Daqian’s recent success. “It’s part of a larger trend,” adds Hammer.

This new money has also influenced a fresh circle of Chinese collectors who are quickly latching on to some of the country’s contemporary art stars. These collectors are bolstering China’s growing art scene, buying up big names like portrait artist Zhang Xiaogang, while taking risks on lesser-known newcomers.

Today the Wall Street Journal profiled Yang Bing, one of China’s most aggressive contemporary art collectors who, according to the article, owns roughly 1,000 works and has financed the opening of two galleries in Beijing. Collectors like Bing are a relatively new trend in China, so a lot remains to be seen. It’s unclear at this point if these collectors are sticking to Chinese contemporary art or plan to ride the Western wave.

Chinese Collector Yang Bin (photo via The Wall Street Journal)

“That’s the million dollar question,” says David Clements, director at the contemporary Chinese art gallery Chambers Fine Art that has locations in Beijing, Manhattan and Salt Point, New York. Clements told Hyperallergic, “This focus on contemporary art among collectors in China is still developing so it’s hard to say if their taste is going to be more Western focused or more locally focused.”

I asked Clements if he saw any dichotomy between China’s upcoming contemporary art collectors and the government’s strict policy on arts and culture, especially considering the Ai Weiwei scandal that defined this year in art politics. Could censorship and fear mongering take a tole on collectors as well? Clements, however, believes, “There is a lot less of a dichotomy than it might seem. The Ai Weiwei case is unique since he is one of the few major artists making a strong political statement. The vast majority are not. The government is not playing a major role in the art market so collectors don’t have to tread lightly.”

Ai Weiwei does occupy a space separate from many other contemporary artists. His outspokenness not only in his art but also in the media and on social networks make him a prime target for the Chinese government. Yet the tension between the aristocracy in China and the rising group of edgy art collectors and dealers can’t be ignored and is likely to increase as the split between old and new in China continues to deepen.

Home page image via luxo.com

Liza Eliano is Hyperallergic’s editorial assistant by day, and bad TV fanatic by night. She recently graduated from Barnard College with a BA in art history and a newfound love for girl power. She was...