Wednesday, October 08, 2008

What's Going on Here?

Note: Update at bottom

I just had an amazing bike trip through Yunnan for the holiday, which I'll hopefully get back to soon. Today, though, a little bit about the Chinese art market.

It's nearly impossible to estimate the size and health of the global art market, because so much of its volume is carried out between private individuals and galleries, which are all in private hands. The auction market is considered a barometer of market health, but it is a slippery one, because as some say, "it's only the tip of the iceberg". We get good figures from them because many of the big auction houses are public companies, and because the auction events are always highly publicized, but no one is even willing to guess what fraction of the total art market their sales represent.

Nevertheless, we have to keep feeding the habit, as much of the market watches what happens at these auctions and adjusts prices accordingly. This has especially been the case in China, where so many of the collectors are speculators, and there are rampant rumors of price manipulation through insider bidding. China's art market has been soaring in recent years as Chinese private collectors and finance have jumped in, where only a few years ago the vast majority of Chinese contemporary collection was done by foreigners.

As I watched with the Puer tea market and again with the Chinese stock market, many of these new entrants seemed to believe that the market for their particular good was not subject to the laws of economics. Works by top flight artists are now selling in the millions of dollars, and efforts by newcomers to discover the next big thing have driven up the prices of much less established artists, even ones who haven't yet graduated from art school. Though I think that in the long term Chinese art will continue to be very strong, we're definitely in for some kind of correction, basically a smack in the face to remind people that the laws of physics still apply.

So I wasn't too surprised to see Sotheby's fall auction in Hong Kong fizzle. We are, after all, in the midst of a global financial crisis. Though top artists like Zhang Xiaogang (my fave) and Cai Guoqiang had pieces that sold for over USD 2m, almost a quarter of the lots failed to sell, and the ones that did only clocked in at the low end of their estimates. I think that this is a good thing. We need to start weeding out those artists who see painting as merely a license to print money, and those galleries and collectors who appraise artists solely based on their potential to go up in price. That makes room for true artists to do what they do best: art.

The confusing thing though, is the reaction I've seen on the internet. The auction results have of course garnered a lot of media attention, being written up by Wall Street Journal and all of the art websites. But one site in particular caught my attention. A recent newcomer, is a well designed bilingual website on the Chinese art scene. The Chinese coverage is excellent, and their English writing is better than a lot of other bilingual sites which have popped up recently. So I was surprised to see yesterday the headline, in English, "Chinese Contemporary Art Sell of Sotheby's (sic) is Still Strong". It cited another website,, as saying that sales still remained strong, citing only the high prices that did make the cut, and not one word about the failed lots. Their Chinese mirror site got it right though, citing a "disappointing performance". What's going on here? Was it a bad editing job, or are something else? I checked Artzine, which says on the top of its news page that the Sotheby's auction had a "surprisingly poor showing". One of the first sentences that Chinese students of English learn to say is "My English is very poor", so I doubt that they could have misread the article.

Update: Artintern has caught the mistake, and now has not one, but two articles about the poor Sotheby's results.


Ally said...

张晓刚的肖像画 大约 = Tim Burton的[Zombie Bride]里的小人



Scott said...

Interesting articles on art. Glad to come across this. I was completely unaware of the Virtual City that you mentioned. Did you get a chance to visit SHContemporary08. Whats your take on that one?

Jeff Crosby said...

I didn't make it to SHContemporary08 or the other big ones. I would have liked to, but I had some pressing business in Beijing. To be honest, I think that it was overkill this year with all the expos and whatnot. It's like the art world has become a nomadic tribe that swoops in from city to city. I'd personally rather see more permanent exhibition spaces popping up, and more people focusing on fostering long term relationships between art and the public.


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