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The Chinese Contemporary Art Market

The market for Chinese Contemporary Art is booming. Since the major auction houses in the US, UK and Europe began dedicating entire auctions to the sale of Chinese Contemporary Art three years ago, an increasing number of Chinese artists have been turning heads with truly extraordinary prices.

At the top end of the market artists such as Zhang Xiaogang and Liu Xiaodong are highly sought after and respected figures in the western art world such as Charles Saatchi, Francois Pinot and Howard Farber continue to add the best examples to their collections. Until recently Chinese Contemporary art was purely an export market with little interest from Chinese collectors. However in recent months an increasing number of wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs, perhaps driven by a patriotic urge, have begun to show greater interest.

Xiaogang may indeed be the star of the moment, consistently achieving high prices with works like ‘Tiananmen Square’ fetching 1.5 million Euros at Christies’ Hong Kong sale in November 2006 and ‘Chapter of a New Century’ making 3 million dollars at Sotheby’s New York in December 2007, but he is not the current record holder. Cai Guo-qiang takes this accolade with a set of fourteen abstract paintings made using gunpowder selling for 9.5 million dollars at a New York sale in November 2007.

But concern is mounting that the growth in Chinese Contemporary Art is unsustainable. With fears of artificially inflated prices and potential instability in the market place, is the bubble about to burst? Weng Ling, director of the Shanghai Gallery of Art, has complained that art was being sold “like people sell cabbage”, with speculators rather than collectors inflating sale prices.

Certainly towards the end of 2007 the market seemed to be gaining maturity with collectors consequently becoming more cautious and selective in the auction rooms. The worldwide frenzy and excitement over the last three years appears to be on the wane and a clear division between the headline and lesser known artists is widening.

However, a burst in the bubble seems unlikely. The Chinese Contemporary Art market continues to feel the effects of a prosperous Chinese economy and an increased interest in the big names by western museums, galleries and collectors. Assuming these artists continue to produce works that express traditional Chinese themes with the freedom and individuality that the west values so highly, the strength of this market will continue over the course of 2008, albeit at a more steady pace.

Robert Coram James

Coram James Ltd. are art valuers specialising in the art and antique valuation for the purposes of probate, insurance and divorce.

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