A wise Chinese proverb says: a river or sea can never be formed without the joining of brooks and streams. This saying has proven itself to work in the sphere of economics, explaining the unbelievable growth of China’s international trade and financial expansion and it is also accurate when we speak about arts. “The Chinese Art Miracle” – this is how international critics called the rise of contemporary Chinese art. Its secret is the combination of a powerful river (traditional art) and its reinforcing streams (state and private support of the rising artists).
In 2011 Thomas Krens, the former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, lifted the curtain slightly on the incredible growth of Chinese contemporary art and its auction prices. He claimed that the source of this growth was the creation of the National Program for arts’ support established in China in 1998. The Program, according to Krens, started with the large-scale exhibition “China: 5000 Years” in Guggenheim Bilbao, followed by successful auction sales of Xu Beihong ($41.9 million, 2011), Qi Baishi ($65.5 million, 2011), Li Keran ($46 million, 2012) and others. Since its beginning, the Program has received substantial funding from private donors interested in promoting national art worldwide. This made it possible to create various international events like Asian Contemporary Art Week in New York, Asian Art Week in London, as well as sending young contemporary artists to residencies and institutions overseas.
As a result, China’s Fine Art auction turnover grew by 305% in just 8 years, from $1.6 billion in 2008 to nearly $4.9 billion in 2015. The number of private museums has grown: Poly Art auction house became a public company thorough the IPO process, and the most prestigious art media The Art Newspaper launched its China edition. Moreover, a significant educational work with domestic collectors has been done, which resulted in purchasing not only Asian art, but also European masterpieces. In 2015 Chinese collector Liu Yiqian bought Amedeo Modigliani’s 1917 signature portrait of a nude woman for $170.4 million at Christie’s in New York, setting a record for the Italian artist’s works. A year before, Wang Zhongjun, a movie mogul, bought a $62 million Van Gogh painting from Sotheby’s.
In July 2015, after a turbulence on the Chinese stock market, quite a few art advisors predicted a slowdown in national art, both on the domestic and international markets. Moreover, a strong anti-corruption campaign implemented in China, restrained government officials from buying high-priced artworks. Consequently, the turnover of Chinese art contracted from $6.6 billion in 2014 to $4.9 billion in 2015. However, quite soon China showed development that no one would have imagined last year. In the first half of 2016, China reclaimed the leading position as the world’s largest art marketplace with an 18% increase, beating the United States to first place on the global art market with a 35.5% share.
Still, mainland China’s art market is undergoing substantial readjustment: its secondary art market sold fewer lots and its overall unsold rate remains high. However, its total turnover on fine art increased because of Hong Kong, an integral part of the People’s Republic of China. China being the heart of Asian art and the process of the Chinese art market stabilization are proving to be of paramount importance for the entire region, continuing posting market growth by 10% and keeping Chinese art market alive. In 2016 the market analysts figured out a new powerful instrument of keeping Chinese art onboard the world art market. This instrument is international spread.
Driven by an increase in demand by US and European collectors, the overseas market for Chinese art reached a historic high in 2015, totaling $2.6 billion in sales and reaching a size more than half that of mainland China for the first time. The number of overseas auction houses with sales of Chinese art increased from 141 in 2009 to 332 in 2015, thereby surpassing the number in mainland China. In terms of total sales value, the overseas market for Chinese art increased from $577.8 million in 2009 to $2.6 billion in 2015 – more than half that of mainland China. The overseas average sale price for Chinese art increased by 8% year-on-year, reaching $54,265 in 2016 – the highest point in the past four years. In comparison, the average price in mainland China was only $17,697.
In 2015 the European share of Chinese art purchased worldwide was 9.1% ($240.9 million), slightly less than the US collectors’ contribution (13.2%) and purchases made by Asian non-Chinese collectors (77.6%). The average price for Chinese artworks bought in Europe reached $24.6 thousand. According to the Artprice Report published in August, 2016, the most successful Asian art sold to European collectors were Chinese antiques (56.5%), then Old Masters’ paintings and calligraphy (27.3%) and only then 20th-century and contemporary Chinese art (15.8%). Still, the last section shows the best increase in value in the recent decade, which has been proven by Asian art sales during Art Basel and other European-based contemporary art fairs. The interest of European collectors in contemporary Asian art, and Chinese art in particular, forces International galleries to bring many more artworks than their exhibition booths can accommodate – the reason is that this kind of art is mostly sold even before the art fair’s opening.
According to the Art Asia Pacific Report 2016, in 2015 Chinese art received a combined support of $7.9 billion, both from state and private sources, and the total value of art exported from Mainland China and Hong Kong was $597 million. Be sure that during the next auctions’ and art fairs’ season this art will find its customers overseas. And its final purchase price will be much higher.
art financier, CEO of GAAB