Could traditional Chinese artists little known in the West take over the global art market? Bloomberg notes that auction price indexes for Li Keran, a prominent 20th-century Chinese landscape painter, are growing at a faster rate than Edvard Munch, the Western master behind “The Scream,” a version of which sold at Sotheby’s this year for a record $120 million.
Li’s work, epitomized by the elegant “Mountains in Red” (1964) which sold for $40.3 million in March, may not mean much to western collectors, but the painter is seen as one of the top four traditional ink artists in the past century of Chinese art. The work appeals to Chinese buyers for its hybrid mix of classicism and modernism, a combination that provides for enduring value as well as a certain aspirational cache.
That the Chinese painter’s prices are rising faster than Munch’s might not say much about the innate quality or power of the art, as prices often don’t, but it certainly provides evidence for the dynamism of the domestic Chinese market and the ongoing disruption of the canon of Western art history. Traditionalist Chinese ink painting is still relegated to a slim section of problematic survey books like Gardner’s, while Munch’s Expressionism is seen as un-ignorable. The auction statistic makes ever more clear the fact that there is no single, discrete art world with a universal critical valuation system, but rather a collection of spheres that intersect and compete for scarce relevance and money.
The 2011/2012 Artprice report that Bloomberg draws from has a number of interesting findings about the growth of the Chinese auction market in comparison with that of the United States and Europe, comparing major Chinese houses like Poly and China Guardian with Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Philips de Pury. Over the report period, China had the highest growth in auction turnover (the number of sales by auction per year) at 38.79 percent, compared to 26.10 percent in the US, 22 percent in the United Kingdom and 2.47 percent in France. “The Asian market, especially China, has become the most upscale in the world,” Artprice reports. It is “ahead of the United States, and way ahead of Europe which is today the densest and the most affordable market.”
Where the crowded European sphere is stagnating, China’s rising class of collectors and supply of available work is leading to energetic expansion (growth that Western auction houses are certainly hoping to cash in on). China itself accounts for 90 percent of the Asian market, and the Chinese Poly auction house is the fourth biggest in the world, behind Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Philips, not to mention the largest auction operator in China.
This might all sound like great news for Chinese artists, collectors, and auction houses alike, but it’s not an entirely rosy picture. Though Asia has become “the world’s most opulent market,” as determined by price and volume of artwork sold, it has been difficult for houses to depend on Chinese collectors, who have been known to default on high bids. “Hong Kong buyers have already proved that they are powerful; but it still remains to be proved that the market is healthy and absolutely trustworthy,” Artprice writes. Despite striking market accomplishments like Li’s, there’s still a long way to go to reach maturity.
To cast further doubt on the claims of the Chinese auction world, check out this highly skeptical Art Newspaper article on why China’s sales figures can’t be trusted. The figures “are very high because they include results from some auction houses that have not removed the values of works subsequently not paid for or discovered to be inauthentic,” Wang Tao writes. Overall auction statistics might include non-art sales, and a large number of individual sales are either defaulted on or turn out to be fakes. Jing Daily points out that there is a big problem with fakes, but arguments against the legitimacy of Chinese auction numbers often fail to make the distinction between mainland and Hong Kong sales. The post makes a strong point that it’s tough to depend on self-reporting for any international auction house — as is always the case in the art world, caveat emptor (buyer beware).