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Hammering it home

By Lin Qi | China Daily | Updated: 2010-07-06 09:01

Hammering it home
Di Zhu Ming, hand scroll by Huang Tingjian. Photos provided to
China Daily

Mainland collectors with money to burn are heating up the market for classical Chinese art and calligraphy and the "100 million-yuan club" welcomed five new members this spring, Lin Qi reports

Following the money. That is how many people described China's art auction market this spring. After a five-year lag, the country smashed the auction record for Chinese fine arts, with a stunning price that was nearly twice the previous record set at a Christie's sale in London.

The market can now boast 13 items in the "100 million-yuan ($14.72 million) club", as five items fetched over the 100 million-yuan at Beijing's major spring auctions.

It is notable that four of the 13 were ceramics and a Buddhist statue, which were sold by Christie's and Sotheby's in 2005 and 2006. While the other pieces were all Chinese paintings and calligraphy sold on the mainland over the past year.

A recent report by the Beijing-based Artron Art Market Monitoring Center (AAMI) shows that Chinese painting and calligraphy accounted for nearly 59 percent of the Top 100 Auction Sales of Chinese Fine Art at last year's domestic autumn auctions; and the classical painting category occupied about 49 percent of the market share other than contemporary art, ceramics and other works of art.

"The art market has been growing steadily along with China's economy in the past decades," Ben Kong, international specialist head of Chinese Paintings, Christie's Hong Kong, tells China Daily.

"The Chinese painting market has been as strong as ever, if not stronger."

Hammering it home

Desolate Temples and Autumn Mountain, by Wang Meng of the Yuan Dynasty.

Despite that, the art market, particularly the contemporary section, has felt the impact of the global financial crisis, though classical Chinese arts has recovered quickly and is proving to be the engine driving the domestic art market.

"Gems of ancient painting and calligraphy with sound provenance and important artistic value are getting scarcer in the market and are highly sought after today, because most of them are in public museums," Guan Yu, an art market analyst for the AAMI, says.

Chinese buyers have surprised the world with their purchasing capacity and private collectors with deep pockets have taken center stage in the salesrooms. Many of them will fly to New York and London to participate in auction sales. As a result, predominant auction houses like Sotheby's have started to advertise on major Chinese art and auction websites such as

However, some critics attribute the prosperity of the art market partly to "hot money", which opportunistic buyers have withdrawn from the uncertain housing and stock markets. They fear that the money will result in not only high prices but also bubbles that will burst.

Gong Jixu, a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts says: "People should keep an eye on the blind investors just following trends, because it's hard to tell how long before it will start to impose negative effects on the market."

The new money is not only evident in the Chinese painting category.

"The market for Chinese ceramics and works of art has never been this strong, with a great deal of active participation from collectors in the China mainland. The trend will certainly continue," says Pola Antebi, senior vice president, department head of Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, Christie's Hong Kong.

"We are also seeing an emerging trend as clients from second tier cities participate in the international art market, in addition to those from major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing."

Hammering it home

This influx of new collectors is expected to be a steady source of momentum that will push forward the growth of the Chinese art market. Guan however suggests newcomers need to acquire a certain amount of knowledge, training and experience, and to identify their collection hierarchy, if they want to make wise investments and be a learned collector.

Major auction houses like Poly International and China Guardian have distinguished themselves with other medium- and small-seized competitors via the birth of new records of single lots and total revenues. But it doesn't suggest that they are on an equal footing with their famous overseas counterparts.

"Since its emergence, Chinese auctioneering hasn't experienced a complete economic cycle, especially the hard lessons of a downturn," Gong says.

"Beijing has replaced Hong Kong as the center for sales of Chinese painting and calligraphy. But for auctions of ceramics and other antiquities, Hong Kong will continue to play a dominant role."

Guan says that this is because ceramics and antiquities have more appeal to Western collectors than paintings and calligraphy, in terms of appreciation and cultural recognition.

Ben Kong believes that the art markets in mainland and Hong Kong will maintain a positive correlation, because "Christie's benefits from the success of Beijing auction houses, as they contribute to the overall health and growth of the Chinese art market".

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