BEIJING When Chinese artist Yue Minjun sold his
painting "Gweong Gweong," inspired by the bloody Tiananmen
Square crackdown in 1989, he received $5,000.
That was in 1994. Fourteen years later, the painting of
toothy men dropping like missiles from war planes over
Tiananmen, fetched $6.9 million at an auction last month.
Feverish bidding at Christie's spring sale in Hong Kong did
not stop with the human missiles. Wild applause erupted when
Zeng Fanzhi's painting of youths wearing absurd masks and Red
Guard scarves went for $9.7 million, a new auction high for any
Asian contemporary artwork.
Collectors and critics reacted with amazement but little
surprise. Prices for Chinese contemporary art have soared over
the last five years, making artists rich and investors even
But the boom is now sowing doubts in a country where the
stock market, which once seemed a guaranteed fount of money,
has shed half its value from last year's peak.
Could the Chinese art market be near the edge of such a
"The market definitely has a bubble for certain artists.
And those bubbles will burst," said Zhang Xiaoming, head of
Chinese contemporary art for auctioneer Sotheby's.
"But I don't think the market is going to go down
substantially. It's just becoming smarter. It's not everything
goes," she said.
That selectivity weighed on two smaller art auctions in
Beijing in late May, where bids were low and lots unsold.
Enthusiasm may have been dampened by the May 12 earthquake
in Sichuan province, which left nearly 90,000 people dead or
missing, but the 18 percent drop in proceeds at the Poly
International Auction sounded a warning.
"Art is very much like any other asset. It has its ups and
downs," said Michael Moses, co-creator of the Mei/Moses
indexes, which tracks art prices dating back to 1875.
Western contemporary art sizzled from 1985 to 1990, rising
at an annual compound rate of 30 percent, before shedding 65
percent in the next five years, he said.
ART OF INVESTING
Like picking the right stocks, making the right choice in
Chinese art has become a concern for mainstream investors.
Where global financial markets remain jittery after the
credit crisis, art prices have climbed uninterruptedly.
Paintings have rarely looked more attractive as alternative
assets, and Chinese contemporary art has been at the head of
Auction prices for China's 18 hottest artists multiplied
13-fold from 2003 to 2007, according to Chinese art website
Artron (www.artron.net). But Artron registered a 4 percent drop
in prices for their works in the past half year.
Avoiding a stomach-churning drop for Chinese art may depend
on the appetite of buyers in Shanghai and Beijing.
"The only way the market is sustainable is if there's
enough wealth here and China wants to buy China (art)," Moses
said. "That is, you can't have a great contemporary collection
without having a Yue Minjun. If that's the case, then it will
Yue's trademark of maniacally grinning men has become a
staple of contemporary Chinese art collections. Some find his
paintings repetitive or facile, but Moses noted that similar
criticism has not dented prices for Andy Warhol's work.
"If this is the current Warhol, if this is the rule of
thumb, then this is quality," he said. "It doesn't matter if
you find it boring."
The success stories of Yue, Zeng Fanzhi, Liu Xiaodong and
others have left young artists with dollar signs in their eyes.
Just out of college, they are demanding very high prices for
untested works, an indication of a bubble, Sotheby's Zhang
"There's no validation from curators. The valuation is
problematic," she remarked.
Investors face added uncertainty because of China's
reputation for fakes and poor authentication. Workshops near
Hong Kong, known for reproductions of Western art, have started
giving the same treatment to their native arts. Knock-offs may
be seeping into the market.
Accusations have also been leveled that Chinese investors
throw money behind young artists, then bid up their prices and
Flourishing arts are still relatively new to modern China.
The country's rich painting and ceramics traditions gave
way to socialist realism after the Communist revolution in
1949. In the 1980s, as the government threw itself into
economic reform, space opened for artists and they began to
push the boundaries.
Their experimentation has delivered a rich bounty, best
captured at Beijing's 798, a warren of thriving galleries in an
old industrial estate built by East Germany.
Yet there are laments that rocketing prices have distorted
"In the past, there were lots of pure collectors," said
Dong Guoqiang, chairman of Council International Auction in
Beijing, a somewhat odd job for a critic of what he sees as the
culture of ROI, or return on investment.
"That practice of collecting art as art has disappeared.
People are focusing more on investment and ROI than the joy of
art," he said.
The seemingly insatiable demand for Chinese contemporary
art has catapulted Hong Kong into third place among the world's
auction centers behind New York and London.
Jerome Sans, director of the Ullens Center of Contemporary
Art, a non-profit art centre in Beijing, thinks it sad that the
soaring prices garner so much attention, reducing the actual
content to little more than an afterthought.
Yue and his peers offer a lens on China's breakneck
economic development and the pollution, corruption and
repression intertwined with it.
"Chinese artists capturing this transitional period in an
original, critical way. Their work will still be very
interesting in a couple of decades," Sans, an art industry
With a wave, he dismissed the idea that the market is a
"Once Chinese collectors start to collect intensively, it
will not end soon," he said. "It's the explosion of a new era
here, so what we see, I think, is just a little start."
(Additional reporting by James Pomfret in Hong Kong)