Raising the red flag

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 April, 2006, 12:00am

CHINESE CONTEMPORARY ART has been in demand locally and overseas for a good decade - but during the past 12 months prices have boomed.

On Sunday, for example, Pink Lotus by San Yu (Chang Yu) fetched $28.12 million - more than five times the estimate of $5 million - at Sotheby's spring auction at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

With such returns, Chinese contemporary art can be an investor's dream. But there's growing concern that the market is overheating, as speculators - and auction houses - drive prices up.

'There's a lack of sophistication on the part of some buyers,' says gallery owner and dealer Dominique Perregaux. 'Everyone's going after the same artists. You have a bunch of Chinese collectors who really play the auction market.' Recent sales have been 'wild'.

Are the works worth the prices being paid? Perregaux doubts it. 'If you look at the biography of most of these artists, it's appalling. When you see some of the Korean and Japanese artists, they're much more mature.

'First, we had a huge demand in the west for Chinese contemporary art. Then, a year ago, Christie's and Sotheby's entered the game and drove the price up, creating a bubble.

'This bubble could be sustained for a long time, because there are new people constantly entering the game. If it were based purely on artistic value, it wouldn't last.' The fact that there are plenty of buyers indicates that the trend is speculative, he says.

Vinci Chang, Christie's specialist of Asian 20th century contemporary art, says that quality work is in no danger. 'The outstanding pieces increase in value over time. Price levels and standards will become clearer.'

Western auction houses started taking notice about the time Chinese contemporary art was showcased for the first time at the Venice Biennale, in 1995. Among that generation of artists was Yue Minjun, whose Gweong Gweong sold at Christie's auction in Hong Kong last November for a personal record of $4.8 million. There are plenty of second-generation artists now coming through the ranks and getting exposure in galleries and auction houses.

'The main buyers are from the mainland, Taiwan and Singapore,' says Evelyn Lin, specialist in charge of Chinese contemporary art at Sotheby's. 'One of the key reasons for the sudden surge was because it was easy to get in [for new collectors]. The art's affordable. Some younger artists' paintings are selling for between US$20,000 and US$60,000. It's also about the subject matter and images, which are about our lives. People feel comfortable with these paintings in their homes or offices.'

The initial wave of artists were born in the late 1950s or early 60s, and include Cai Guoqiang, Yue Minjun, Wang Guanyi, Yang Shaobin and Zhao Gang. Increasingly, their works are selling far above estimates at auction.

References in contemporary works to traditional Chinese painting appeal to many buyers. Zhou Chunya, for example, echoes traditional ink works in the series of rock paintings he began to produce in the early 1990s.

'For collectors on the mainland, it's easy to accept his concept,' says Lin. 'It's not only a fusion of western and Chinese, but also ancient and modern. We think he has potential and we think he's undervalued. We always make a section at the auctions for artists with potential.' Lin says Hong Kong artist Wilson Shieh Kaho, who was born in 1970, is another whose work refers to traditional ink paintings.

The quality of the work by this so-called first generation is what initially impressed collectors worldwide.

As China's economy continues to grow, so, too, will the demand for art. But whereas the market was new a decade ago, with only a handful of artists known internationally, there are fears now that the market is becoming flooded.

With so much money at stake, quality appears to be a secondary issue, which could have an adverse effect on future contemporary art. Younger artists may be tempted simply to imitate what is selling well, rather than develop their own talents. 'Many are just copying the styles of the successful artists,' says Vinci Chang.

Gallery owner Wai Yin Schoeni and her late husband, Max Schoeni, went up to the mainland during the late 1980s to find artists. Among those first-generation artists it now represents are Chen Yu and Shen Hua. 'It was emotionally quite different then,' Schoeni says. 'All the artists were bursting with ideas. Now it's not so intense. We held the very first exhibition of Yue Minjun and other artists in 1994. Now they have the status of superstars. At that time we had difficulty selling.

'I think the younger generation of artists is confused. It's seeing all these success stories. To have that original creativity you have to stay true to yourself. In the late 1980s these artists had to take a risk to show their art. Now, the new and younger artists are under pressure to produce and there are a lot of temptations.

Schoeni says that, since the contemporary art boom, people have started coming to the gallery 'with a wish list of artists that they want to buy. I found it quite funny. It's like people with a grocery list.

'Everybody wants to be part of this. But as a gallery we want people also to come in as art lovers.'