- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2005

China’s new affluent class has discovered the joys of auction houses. This year, sales at China’s 10 leading auction houses topped $1 billion, up from $100 million in 2000, according to published figures. First-time buyers are snapping up everything from Chinese contemporary paintings to Western antiques, but the main quest is for objects and art from China itself. Drawn by the booming market, Christie’s, the international auction house, this week became the first Western auction house to announce that it was setting up a sales operation in Beijing.

What Chairman Mao Zedong would have thought of this growing capitalist trend is not hard to imagine. But one of the sculptures in a current exhibition of Chinese avant-garde art in The Hague is a reproduction of Mao’s Little Red Book, the bible of the Maoist Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, with the pages blank because, as the artist explains, it no longer has anything to say to the Chinese.

The new breed of collectors consists of real estate developers, construction company owners, captains of industry, high-tech managers, moneymen and others who have profited from China’s frenetic economic pace.

Henry Howard-Sneyd, who runs Sotheby’s — the main rival of Christie’s — was quoted in the New York Times Oct. 13 as saying that the Chinese were interested in their own art, but also in everything else, including “fine wines, jewelry, Western furniture and 19th-century paintings.”

Because there is still a ban on foreign auction houses operating in Beijing, Christie’s has teamed up with a new local auction house called Forever and will provide its name, expertise and sales teams. The first sale, of 46 works of Chinese modern and contemporary art, goes on the block Nov. 9.

If Christie’s is there, can Sotheby’s be far behind? If Sotheby’s has plans to follow suit, however, it has yet to announce them. (Meanwhile, Sotheby’s is holding its first sale of Chinese contemporary art in its New York salesrooms in March.)

“Obviously, Christie’s wants to cater for domestic Chinese buyers,” Howard Farber, a leading New York collector of Chinese contemporary art, said Friday. “This is a new phenomenon. The Chinese have just started buying Chinese art, especially contemporary. The 21st century belongs to China, and Christie’s sees this as a great opportunity.”

Mr. Farber says it’s too early to say what effect the presence of Christie’s in China will have on prices, but it does make Beijing one more venue that collectors have to take into account. “I would assume that the bidding will be fierce between Chinese and Western buyers,” he says.

Edward Dolman, Christie’s chief executive, was quoted as saying this week, “[China] is a huge market and we’re building on the tremendous sales in Hong Kong.” Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have had successful salesrooms in Hong Kong since the time when it was still a British colony.

Helping fuel the booming Chinese art market is the rising interest worldwide in Chinese contemporary and avant-garde painting, sculpture and installations.

Politically, the fact that contemporary art is permitted to go on sale inside China signifies a shift in official attitudes. After the Tiananmen Square clashes in 1989, contemporary artists — especially avant-garde artists — became nonpersons.

Their work was not shown; some fled the country; and others went to jail. However, their situation has improved gradually along with the prices of their work both at home and in the West.

Julia Colman, a Chinese art expert with a gallery in London and another in Beijing, told United Press International, “The fact that these artists have captured the interest of the West makes them less vulnerable to suppression by the regime.”

Chinese art doesn’t fetch the megabucks of a Picasso or a van Gogh — yet. Nevertheless, the rate of climb in prices in the past five years has been rapid and steep. A recently sold installation by Cai Guo Qiang, the artist who created a rainbow over New York’s East River in 2002, had a catalog estimate of $230,000 and went for $586,344.

A painting by the Chinese new wave artist Zeng Fanzhi sold for $146,586 (catalog estimate: $51,200). Christie’s catalog for next month’s Beijing sale lists a landscape by Wu Guanzhong estimated at $770,000 to $900,000.

The avant-garde works can be startling in both concept and execution. “10,000 Kilometers,” an installation by Gu Wenda representing the Great Wall of China, consists of bricks made of hair, a reference to the many thousands of laborers who suffered during construction of the wall. The work was shown recently in an exhibition in Beijing.

Chinese contemporary art is being seen increasingly in museums in the West as more curators travel to China to meet artists and dealers. At least one Chinese art blockbuster show is being planned for 2006-07, comparable to the 1998 exhibition “China: 5,000 Years” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

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