Last October, Zeng Fanzhi’s painting The Last Supper sold for the highest price ever seen at auction for a piece of Chinese contemporary art—an impressive sum of US$23.3 million. However, just last week, Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud dwarfed that amount with a sale of US$142.4 million at Christie’s, setting the record for the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction. Although this comparison is an extreme example of the fact that Chinese contemporary art prices are consistently lower than their Western counterparts, the situation is changing as China’s wealthy rapidly push prices higher and higher.
As with the Chinese market, the fall auction season saw many record-breaking and above-estimate prices for Western art, albeit at a much higher range. In the same week as the Bacon sale, an Andy Warhol piece went for $105 million at Sotheby’s, breaking Warhol’s previous record of $71.7 million, and the same Christie’s auction saw Jeff Koons become the highest-grossing living artist, with his orange balloon dog selling for $58.4 million. Also surpassing the Zeng record at Sotheby’s were Gerhard Richter’s A.B. Courbet, which sold for $26.5 million, and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers), which fetched $25.9 million.
However, Chinese contemporary art is quickly gaining ground on these prices. The Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale that saw the record Zeng also included the sale of many works selling at or above the high estimate, including the following:
A triptych by Zao Wou-ki set the record as the highest price ever commanded by the artist, bringing in HK$85.2 million ($11 million). In addition, Liu Ye’s Sword fetched HK$42.6 million (US$5.5 million), Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family No. 12 sold for HK$25.8 million (US $3.3 million), and Yue Minjun’s Between Men and Animal topped its high estimate with a sale for HK$9.8 million (US$1.2 million).
While these prices are still a fraction of many sales by Western artists, these painters, as well as many others (including Cai Guo-Qiang), are all on the path to global top-tier prices for a number of reasons. First of all, China’s wealthy are not only getting wealthier, they’re taking a stronger interest in investment in art as they do so. Rising incomes and new Chinese millionaires are also leading to growth in numbers of China’s new collectors. In addition, works are scarce right now, meaning we’re likely to see more record-setting sales. With Chinese buyers’ focus on hard assets over equities as a stable source of investment, China’s pragmatic and increasingly knowledgeable buyers are quickly scooping up blue-chip pieces with high confidence in future appreciation in value.
Several upcoming Chinese contemporary art auctions are likely to see solid demand from Chinese buyers. On the heels of Christie’s first independent mainland auction, Sotheby’s will be holding its own joint-venture mainland auction on December 1 in Beijing, which will be preceded by a four-day series of arts events to celebrate its new arrangement. The highlight of the auction house’s Beijing sale is expected to be Zao Wou-ki’s Abstraction, but many other pieces could also surpass estimates. One piece to keep an eye out for is Li Shan’s Rouge Series: Lotus, which is valued at 800,000 to 1,200,000 RMB. Works by Zeng Fanzhi, Liu Ye, Liu Dahong, and Yue Minjun are also predicted to bring in hefty prices. Meanwhile, Yue Minjun’s Hats Series – Welcome is estimated to bring in a price between US$406,800 and US$745,800 at Ravenel’s upcoming Taipei auction on December 1, but could possibly reach seven figures considering the number of record-setting prices that Chinese contemporary art has brought in this season. Equally promising is Cai Guo-Qiang’s Drawing for Fireworks from Heaven, which is also estimated in the US$406,800 to US$745,800 range.
While these prices may seem modest compared to those of Western works by the likes of Koons, it wouldn’t be surprising if the impact of China’s new and increasingly wealthy collectors put Chinese and Western contemporary pieces on a level playing field in the future.