On Chinese Art Prices: Into the void

Natasha Degen – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
July 20 2007
The crowd in the ballroom of the Kunlun Hotel in Beijing erupted in applause as the hammer went down on Wu Guanzhong’s “Ancient City of Jiaohe”. The occasion was Poly Auction Co’s inaugural evening sale on May 31 when the 1981 painting sold for a record Yn37m (£2.8m).
The room, packed with collectors and buyers, had been growing increasingly animated as bidding drove up the price from its estimate of Yn15m. When the final bid was announced, the crowd seemed to be celebrating not only the record sale but the vibrancy of the Chinese art market as a whole. Poly Auction representatives believe it to be the highest price paid for a work by a living Chinese artist.
The buyer, identified only by his surname, Cai, was from Singapore while 80 per cent of buyers at the sale were Chinese, according to Poly Auction director Li Da.
There were plenty of other high prices that evening. Mao Yan’s “Memory or the Dancing Black Rose” fetched Yn9.1m. Shi Chong’s “Contemporary Scenery” sold for Yn15m. Buyers for both were from mainland China.
The evening sale netted a total of Yn248m. Sixty-five contemporary works were offered for sale and, of these, 48 matched or exceeded their high estimate.
Though some at the auction dismissed the prices as “crazy”, the results were in line with the recent trajectory of the Chinese contemporary art market with prices having risen as much as tenfold over the past year. This jump, however, has led some to speculate that there is a bubble market.
Beijing art dealer Meg Maggio, who also serves as Poly Auction’s foreign adviser, dismisses this idea. “People are reacting because there’s no more bargain shopping in the third world,” she says. “At Poly, who got the highest prices? An 85-year-old man, who has dedicated his life to painting. The living father of Chinese modernism, Wu Guanzhong. If anyone deserves to get these prices, it’s him.”
The success of the sale has bolstered Poly Auction’s already impressive performance history. In November, it set a record price for Chinese contemporary art when “Newly Displaced Population”, a painting by Liu Xiaodong, sold for more than $2.7m.
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