Western Auction Houses’ Unlikely Role In Promoting China’s Soft Power

MOVIES GET MOST of the popular attention when it comes to the cultural front in China’s drive to raise its global soft power. But we are reminded today of the role fine art and antiques can play, and of the need for the country’s artists to establish themselves as international brands.

Last year, China accounted for nearly one quarter of the $61 billion global art market, according to the TEFAF Art Market Report. Its $15 billion of sales were second only to those of America artists. Two thirds of Chinese artists’ sales came at auction, with more than two-thirds of those sales taking place within the country.

Art Net, an online auction and arts news site based in New York, has now totted up which modern and contemporary Chinese artists have been the biggest money spinners at auction over the past three and a half years. The bigger the sale; the higher the international profile.

Topping its list is the late Wu Guanzhong, whose landscapes have given him the title of the father of modern Chinese painting and whose works have realized $510 million over the period under review, including the $23.5 million sale of a 1973 oil on paper landscape, the most expensive individual work. Zao Wou-Ki, the French-Chinese abstract artist who died last year, is second with auction sales of $417.6 million. Third is the highest ranked living Chinese artist, Zeng Fanzhi, at $226 million.

Art Net also notes that the international auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, are accounting for an increasing share of sales. Local salesrooms such as Beijing A&F Auction, Poly International and, in Taipei, Ravenel are being squeezed out — further evidence that, as the U.S. has found with Hollywood, the market may be a more powerful arm of cultural diplomacy than state-sponsored organisations such as the Confucius Institute.

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