Chinese Media: Spring Auctions Will See Wide-Scale “Repatriation” Of Chinese Contemporary Art

Arts Media In China Expects Domestic Buyers To Clean House At Upcoming Auctions In Hong Kong

Mao Xuhui’s 'Paternalism Series No. 3' will be up for grabs at the upcoming Ullens Collection auction in Hong Kong (Image: Art Radar Asia)

Mao Xuhui’s ‘Paternalism Series No. 3’ will be up for grabs at the upcoming Ullens Collection auction in Hong Kong (Image: Art Radar Asia)

“Repatriation” isn’t a word typically associated with the Chinese contemporary art market, being more commonly used in the context of traditional art created by long-dead court painters or antiques from the country’s ancient imperial past. But in recent months, as demand for Chinese art has ballooned among China’s newly wealthy as a destination for their excess cash, Chinese media has started to recast the upcoming Hong Kong spring auctions as an opportunity for buyers to bring back pieces formerly in the hands of overseas collectors. (Or prevent other works from leaving the country altogether.)

Of course, “repatriation” is nothing if not a loaded term, with collectors and art brokers with a nationalistic bent often using the word to refer to their international buying activities. As the New York Times pointed out last year in the wake of the US$86 million sale of a Qing Dynasty-era vase possibly looted by British troops during the second Opium War (1856-1860),

With China’s wealth rapidly rising, mainland Chinese buyers have been a major force in pushing up the prices of Chinese antiquities, reversing, at least in small measure, the flow of Chinese artworks to the West during the centuries before the Communist revolution in 1949 — and the loss of imperial treasures when the Chinese nationalists fled the Communist victory for Taiwan, taking huge quantities of antiquities with them.

Luckily, the developing trend of mainland Chinese buyers driving prices for top contemporary Chinese artists up towards “pre-2008-crisis” levels has so far been without the kind of high drama seen at much talked-about events like the disastrous 2009 Christie’s auction of works from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent. At that auction, Cai Mingchao — an adviser to China’s National Treasures Fund, which seeks to retrieve looted treasures — bid 15 million euros (US$21 million) for a pair of bronze Zodiac Heads looted in 1860 by British and French forces at Yuanmingyuan, ultimately refusing to pay in what he called a “patriotic act.” In the ensuing two years, Christie’s has stepped up its efforts to repair relations with the Chinese government, recently launching the “Trans-Realism” Chinese contemporary art exhibition (with pieces hand-picked by the Chinese government) in New York and looking into financing a series of exhibitions with arts institutions in China.

Despite a dearth of drama (thus far), the Chinese contemporary art market is seeing auctions (and prices) heat up as mainland Chinese buyers flock to Hong Kong, motivated by the possibility of keeping works by China’s best artists close to home, often with the intention of opening private museums and gaining face while stashing cash in an inflation-resistant asset. This is particularly true at auctions of works with a clear provenance that leads back to well-known Western collectors. This, Art China concludes this week, is why we should keep a close eye on the upcoming auction of works from the collection of Guy Ullens, a giant in the world of Chinese contemporary art.

From Art China (translation by Jing Daily team):

“Repatriation” is usually used in reference to the phenomenon of Chinese artwork returning home from overseas, but despite being used more in regards to porcelain, calligraphy, and other ancient pieces, it actually applies to the latest field of art collecting — Chinese contemporary art — as well. A good example of this is the upcoming Sotheby’s spring auctions in Hong Kong, where the Ullens collection of Chinese contemporary art will be up for grabs.

This goes back to the distinct historical background that birthed the Chinese contemporary art movement. Chinese contemporary art emerged as a kind of avant-garde movement, created in a unique context and challenging mainstream ideology. In its earliest days, only Western collectors were buying Chinese contemporary art, many of them for speculative reasons. Over the past two years, as prices for Chinese contemporary art have again shot up, many of these early collectors have jumped ship. For example, at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, from the auction of the Estella Collection in 2007 to the Saatchi Collection in 2009 to the sale of works from a Swiss collector in the fall of 2010, European and American collectors have sold their collections nearly non-stop at international auction houses, giving force to a “rising tide” of works returning to China from abroad.

We’ll have to wait until April 4 to find out whether the Ullens Collection will be bought up by individual collectors, institutions like the Minsheng Bank that want to build up their collections of Chinese contemporary art, or art funds. However, the works amassed by Guy Ullens over the past couple of decades are not likely to end up in the collection of another Western collector. New Chinese collectors have proven themselves completely tone-deaf when it comes to pre-sale estimates, and considering the quality of the works up for auction — and the historical “stamp of approval” that comes along with a piece previously owned by a respected figure like Ullens — we expect the auction will take in far more than its high estimate of US$16.7 million.

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Art & Auction, Culture