October 19, 2009

Laughing All The Way To The Bank

Execution, 1995 by Yue Minjun

While attending the 2007 CIGE Art Fair (China International Gallery Exposition) in Beijing, China, I remarked to my colleague Margit how lukewarm I felt about the paintings on the walls. Many of the canvases were repetitively Mao-centric or concerned only with self in subject matter and exhibited the thinnest layers of surface paint possible. Almost all had the appearance of having been slapped together quickly with only commerce in mind.

Since those heady days, the art world has learned that the words bubble and market correction don't just simply apply to the great housing and real estate debacle. Following are several informative articles from the New York Times published in recent years (serving both as a timeline and as a commentary on the times we live in) regarding the highs and lows of the Chinese contemporary art market.

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From David Barboza's article Schooling the Artist's Republic of China, published March 30, 2008:

"On a recent lazy afternoon Wang Haiyang, a student at China's top art school, was quietly packing away some of his new oil paintings in the campus's printmaking department. He is 23, and he just had his first major art exhibition at a big Beijing gallery.

Many of his works sold for more than $3,000 each, he said. And he hasn't even graduated.

"This is one of my new works," he said proudly, gesturing toward a sexually provocative painting of a couple embracing. "I'll be having another show in Singapore in March."

For better or worse - depending on whom you talk to - Beijing's state-run Central Academy of Fine Arts has been transformed into a breeding ground for hot young artists and designers who are quickly snapped up by dealers in Beijing and Shanghai.

The school is so selective that it turns away more than 90 percent of its applicants each year. Many of its faculty members are millionaires and its alumni include some of China's most successful new artists, including Liu Wei, Fang Lijun and Zhang Huan. And with the booming market for contemporary Chinese art, its students are suddenly so popular that collectors frequently show up on campus in search of the next art superstar. At the annual student exhibition the students no longer label their works only with their name and a title. They leave an e-mail address and cellphone number.

..."The buyers are also going to the school to look for the next Zhang Xiaogang," said Cheng Xindong, a dealer in Beijing, referring to an art star, one of whose paintings sold for $3.3 million at a Sotheby's sale in London in February. "And immediately they make contact with them, even before they graduate from school, saying, 'I will buy everything from you' " (A similar phenomenon has been observed in recent years at hot art schools in New York and Los Angeles.)

"This can be a dangerous thing," he said. "These young artists need time to develop."

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From Carol Vogel's article Amid Asian Art Boom, Manhattan Gallery to Open Branch in Beijing, published April 29, 2008:

"With works by Chinese contemporary artists fetching millions of dollars at auction and the number of Asian collectors multiplying, it was only a matter of time before a major Manhattan art gallery announced plans to put down roots in Beijing.

The first to do so is PaceWildenstein, which this summer will open Pace Beijing, a 22,000-square-foot space in a former munitions factory. The site is in the heart of the city's gallery neighborhood, the Factory 798 District.

... Pace Beijing will be in a neighborhood that is the equivalent of New York's Chelsea. "Factory 798 District is the third-biggest sightseeing attraction in Beijing," said Mr. Glimcher (after the Great Wall and the Forbidden City).

"There are already about 200 galleries there," he added. "It has 10 times the attendance of Chelsea."

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From David Barboza's article An Auction of New Chinese Art Leaves Disjointed Noses in Its Wake, published May 7, 2008:

"Sotheby's auction house called it the "most important collection of contemporary Chinese art to ever come to market" - some 200 works by some of China's hottest names.

And when the first half of the trove, called the Estella Collection, went on the block in April in Hong Kong, it brought in $18 million and set some record prices for artists, like $6 million for a canvas by the Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang.

But the sale of the works has stirred indignation among many of the artists and their dealers and some curators.

Those artists and curators say that as the collection was being formed, they were duped into thinking that a rich Westerner was putting together a permanent collection and would eventually donate some of the works to leading museums.

Instead, they say, the buyers were a group of investors who quickly cashed in by selling the works last August to the Manhattan dealer William Acquavella, who is in turn selling them through Sotheby's. (The second half of the collection is to be auctioned this fall in New York.)

... The conflict suggests the tensions that have arisen between artists, curators, galleries and museums around the world since the booming art market became global. The challenges are particularly acute when it comes to China, which has become a magnet for some of the world's biggest galleries, museums, collectors and art market speculators, but is relatively new to the game.

Chinese artists who a few years ago were selling works for just $10,000 each are suddenly signing deals with international galleries and seeing their works fetch $500,000 or more at auction. Indeed, Art Market Trends 2007 reported that last year, 5 of the 10 best-selling living artists at auction were born in China, led by Mr. Zhang, 50, whose works sold for a total of $56.8 million at auction last year.

"It's amazing," said Fabien Fryns, a founder of F2 Gallery in Beijing. "I think there'll be a $20 million painting some time soon."

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From Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop's article Chinese contemporary art bubble goes flat, published December 5, 2008:

"The enigmatic self-portraits of Yue Minjun with their jaw-breaking grin are one of the most recognizable images of Chinese contemporary art and, when the going was good, those dealing in Yue's smiling men also laughed all the way to the bank.

... But collectors are no longer snapping up Yue's work. After four years of unprecedented boom, some sense is returning to the market.

"The market for Chinese contemporary art had long been overheated. Many artworks and artists are overpriced and overrated, notwithstanding the fact that they are good artworks by good artists. Needless to say, there is a lot of junk being traded as "meaningful artwork," said Daniel Komala, the president of Larasati Auctioneers in Singapore.

"For good artworks, the bubble has deflated significantly; for meaningless artworks, the bubble simply burst," Komala said. "The market is looking for a new equilibrium, which is somewhere between 30 to 40 percent below its peak."

... Nicole Schoeni, director of the Hong Kong-based Schoeni Art Gallery, said recent auction results would "humble a lot of people."

"I'm in a sense quite relieved to see this happening," she added. "A lot of the speculators are also not getting involved anymore."

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From David Barboza's article China's Art Market: Cold or Maybe Hibernating, published March 10, 2009:

"But just as he (artist Zeng Fanzhi) and dozens of other artists in Beijing and Shanghai put the finishing touches on lavish studios that proclaim their success, the market for Chinese contemporary art has entered a downward spiral.

A global financial crisis has wiped out vast amounts of personal wealth, prompting a plunge in art prices. Suddenly bereft of visitors, galleries are laying off staff members, and the collectors who patronized them now worry that their art investments may prove a colossal folly.

"It's been a long, cold winter," said Zoe Butt, director of international programs at Long March Space, which is closing two of its three Beijing galleries. "The era of Chinese contemporary art commanding such high prices is over."

... Experts say the contracting market is also putting the squeeze on major collectors, many of whom had been hoping to unload high-priced works in 2009."

... Many collectors were seduced by the numbers. "For people who got into the market three years ago, I feel sorry for them," said Fabien Fryns, who runs F2 Gallery in Beijing.

Artists who have benefited most from this country's rising profile as an arts center are still living in luxury residences and driving BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. But recently, they've been getting fewer visitors.

"Before, every day visitors would come and knock on the door, and I had to spend the morning taking them around," Mr. Zeng said, sitting on a leather sofa in his studio. "Now it's about half as much."

He seems somewhat relieved, however. And experts say the market drop may be salubrious in some ways for Chinese art. Soaring prices had created a circuslike atmosphere, with some artists turning their studios into assembly lines that mass-produced their most popular works."

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From Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop's article Chinese Art Prices Show Signs of Stabilizing, published June 9, 2009:
"In May 2007, "The Sisters (Grand Family No. 7)," an oil painting by Zhang Xiaogang, sold for $1.16 million at Christie's New York. Last month, it went under the hammer there again - this time for $722,500.

That sale sent mixed signals. The 27 percent price fall mirrored the overall state of the contemporary art market; still, bidding was active, and the painting came through as the top lot of the afternoon's offering of postwar and contemporary art, beating works by Damien Hirst, Keith Haring and Richard Prince. After its initial collapse, as the economic crisis struck, the Chinese contemporary market may be bottoming out.

... Still, two of three paintings by Yue Minjun - who was red-hot recently - failed to sell at Christie's day sale; and at Phillips Contemporary Art auction in New York in May, Yue's "Backyard Garden," a 2005 painting with his signature laughing men, estimated at $500,000 to $600,000, also went unsold.

"People are being selective about what's worth it and what's not," Ms. Dudek said. "Collectors are taking a more piece-by-piece approach. His most recent pieces have not sold as well as the older ones. The critical consensus on some of his recent pieces is not 100 percent established, but his earlier pieces come through with much higher prices because they remain fairly established in term of quality and value."

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Lesson learned (if any): Buy art you love, buy quality, and support those artists whose work and ideas you believe in for the long-term. It is not advisable to speculate. Unfortunately as they say, there is indeed "a sucker born every minute."

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