Tag Archives: art

Hammering Up An Art Bubble

The identity of the buyer who paid a record price at auction for a Chinese contemporary art work has not been made pubic but we understand that it was either a Chinese or an Indonesian. Zhang Xiaogang’s 1988 triptych, Forever Lasting Love, went for HK$79 million ($10.1 million) at Sotheby’s Spring sale in Hong Kong, at which two other contemporary Chinese artists also realized record prices for their work. The previous record price was HK$75 million paid in 2008 for a work by Zeng Fanzhi.

Sotheby’s had under the hammer more than 100 works from the collection of Baron Guy Ullens, the retired Belgian businessman turned art collector who set up the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2007. They realized triple the pre-auction estimates in furious bidding from a packed auction room and on the telephone. The buyers were overwhelmingly Asian and predominantly Chinese, reflecting the growth of a cadre of newly rich buyers who have turned China into the world’s second largest art market after the U.S. As we have wondered before, is this the start of a renewed investment bubble?


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Will China’s Rich Change The Global Art Market?

China has displaced the U.K. to become the world’s second largest art market after the U.S., according to a report on the global art market in 2010 commissioned by the European Fine Art Foundation and published to coincide with its Maastricht arts and antiques fair, the art dealing world’s annual trade show that opens at the end of this week. Given the pace of economic growth that China has enjoyed in recent years, regardless of the global financial crisis in 2008 (when China displaced France as the third largest art market), and the consequent growth of a cadre of newly rich potential purchasers, that is perhaps no great surprise.  Something similar happened in Japan at its equivalent phase of growth in the 1980s. Older hands will remember Yasuo Goto of the Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company paying $40 million at auction for a Van Gogh in 1987, a price that more than tripled the then world record for a work of art.

What intrigues us is whether the scale of China’s newly rich buying art will turn fine art into a structured alternative-investment category in a way that Japan didn’t. China has taken a tentative first step in this direction. In January, it set up the government-backed Tianjin Cultural Artwork Exchange to let investors buy and sell fractional ownership of paintings, calligraphy and other works of art — and so provide a rudimentary public market where investors, small and large, could, in effect, trade art shares.

What it and a similar exchange in France don’t let an investor do is invest in the broad art market or in an index of it. The art world doesn’t have an investment-grade index equivalent to a broad stock market index. Constructing one would be even more difficult than creating real-estate indices, which also have to contend with the issue of measuring a market of one-off products, properties in its case, works of art in the other; further, though art sales are an estimated $30 billion a year market, less than half of that is comprised of discoverable prices, i.e. sales at auction; three-fifths to two-thirds are private sales. Could Chinese buying provide the impetus for tackling those structural market problems? Or will it just create another bubbly fad that will eventually go pop?

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Winner Of Bronzes Auction Patriotically Won’t Pay Up

A late twist to the controversial auction of the two Qing dynasty bronzes sold at Christie’s Paris auction of the late Yves St. Laurent’s art collection:  Cai Mingchao says he is the anonymous winning telephone bidder–and that he won’t hand over the $36 million he bid. He says he made a bogus offer as a patriotic protest against the sale of looted relics.

Cai owns Xinheart, an auction company in Xiamen. A specialist in relics, he is also an adviser to China’s Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program, a non-governmental body dedicated to repatriating looted Chinese art. Cai’s fake bid was apparently done in cooperation with the group, but without Beijing’s express instruction. “Every Chinese would have liked to do like this at that moment, and I’m honored to have the chance to make the bid,” Cai said at a press conference.

Beijing had tried to prevent the sale going ahead, but denies it had anything to do with the fake bid, AP reports. It has already made its displeasure with Christie’s known.

If this is all as claimed, sabotaging a high-profile auction leaves Christie’s embarrassed. It hasn’t publicly responded to Cai’s claim. It is unlikely to sue the art dealer for breach of contract. That would only stoke the fires of resentment against it in China. What usually happens when a winning bidder can’t afford to pay, is that the item goes to the next highest bid. Christie’s must be hoping the underbidder wasn’t another patriot.

Here is another suggestion: Christie’s strikes a deal with the Yves St. Laurent collection to withdraw the lot retrospectively in return for the reserve price and the auction house and the collection jointly donate the bronzes to China, thus buying face all round.

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Beijing, Taipei And The Diplomacy Of Art

China and Taiwan’s Palace Museums, collectively homes to the world’s best collection of Qing dynasty (1616-1911) treasures, have had informal but friendly ties for some time. Now that relations between Beijing and Taipei are thawing that relationship is getting complicated.

A weekend meeting between Zheng Xinmiao, curator of Beijing’s Palace Museum (the formal name for the Forbidden City), and his visiting counterpart from Taipei’s National Palace Museum, Chou Kung-hsin, was treated “as it involved two rival Chinese emperors themselves,” the FT reports. The two agreed some minor exchanges of staff and cooperation on academic research and publications, but didn’t take on any difficult issues such as labels.

Beijing won’t stand for anything that implies Taiwan is a independent state. For its part, Chou’s museum won’t lend anything to its Beijing counterpart without legal guarantees that it will get the artifacts back. It has a huge collection of Chinese treasures that arrived with the Kuomintang in 1949. Beijing holds that the treasures are in foreign hands and should be returned for free.

The Taipei museum will, though, be borrowing 29 artifacts from Beijing for three months for an exhibition about Emperor Yongzheng (1722-1735).  So the cultural diplomacy is at least flowing in one direction.

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