Can Shanghai photo fair persuade Chinese art collectors to invest in contemporary works?

China is the world’s second-largest art market but makes up only 1.2 per cent of art photo sales. Those behind Photofairs Shanghai, featuring works by luminaries such as Ren Hang and Zhang Hai’er, are hoping to change that

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 September, 2017, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 September, 2017, 5:56pm

Photofairs Shanghai, being held at the Shanghai Exhibition Centre this week, is not just the main trade show in China for international fine art photography.

With four vintage Porsches on display in the exhibition centre’s courtyard, and massive displays of beautiful faces promoting Lancome’s luxury skin products inside, the event has also become a showcase of international consumer brands.

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Art is often described as a classic “Veblen good” – demand goes up as the price goes up because people buy it to impress – and the organiser of the Shanghai photography fair is unapologetic about linking art with the luxury market.

“Visitors to our January fair in San Francisco were mostly established buyers of photography,” says Scott Gray, co-founder and chief executive officer of Photofairs. “In Shanghai, there are fewer established collectors. Instead, we have the luxury brand buyers. That’s why the sponsorship model works so well here.”

China is the world’s largest luxury goods market and second-largest art market. But according to a 2015 report compiled by ArtMarket.com, the country accounted for just 1.2 per cent of art photo sales around the world. For that to change, Chinese collectors need to be convinced that contemporary photography makes a sound investment.

“People are wary of more editions appearing on the market in the future,” says Coco Li Xin, deputy executive manager at Beijing Huachen Auctions, who oversaw China’s first photography auction in 2006. “That’s why they prefer photos by deceased artists rather than contemporary works.” She estimates that around 60 per cent of photographic lots sold through her company are historical.

At Photofairs Shanghai, now in its fourth year, one example of a historical photo can be found at Magnum Photos’ booth: a signed print by Edward Weston, who died in 1958. His 1922 portrait of the composer Henry Cowell, captured looking skyward in awe, is selling for US$60,000.

That figure is dwarfed by some of the prices fetched by contemporary photographers at auction. In 2011, German photographer Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II (1999), an abstract, digitally manipulated river scene, was sold for US$4.3 million. Dealers want Chinese collectors to become more active at this level of the market.

Japanese photographers are very well established in the market. Chinese photography is the next frontier
Scott Gray

The Shanghai fair, which was attended by 27,000 people last year, has this year attracted 50 Chinese and overseas galleries that mostly offer contemporary works.

Highlights include Blindspot Gallery’s showcase of works by Chinese photographer Zhang Hai’er. The collection includes works from his “Bad Girls” series and the documentary-style images of coal and steel plant workers taken in the late 1980s when he was working as a photojournalist.

At the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre booth, autobiographical black-and-white images by Liang Xiu lay bare the struggle faced by so many young Chinese women today: how do you seek empowerment when you had no chance of finishing school and come from a poor rural background, and are then made to feel ashamed about your body and your sexual urges?

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Much anticipation surrounded a special exhibition of Ren Hang’s last works. Sensual and humorous images of nubile young Chinese men taken just before the gay artist killed himself in February are a sad reminder of how China – which for many years banned his work – is discovering a huge talent too late.

The fair has also ramped up its campaign of getting well-known Chinese collectors to help make the case for buying photographs. This year, Adrian Cheng, David Chau, Jenny Wang and Thomas Shao all lent works for a special “Collectors’ Exhibition” to drive home the message.

Photography is still largely in the so-called “masstige” segment of the art market – mass-produced, relatively inexpensive goods which are marketed as luxurious or prestigious. The ArtMarket.com report found that average prices in 2015 were around a sixth of paintings, making it a much more accessible market.

Leon Qu, a 36-year-old Beijing photographer, says he has been coming to the annual Shanghai fair since it started in 2014 and is looking to buy. Cathy Gong Yan, an artist based in Shenzhen who is visiting the fair for the first time, is not quite at that point.

“I am not quite ready to buy. I don’t feel I know enough about collecting yet, which is why I will attend some of the collecting workshops at the fair this weekend,” she says, adding that her favourite part of the event was the exhibition of German artist Jim Rakete.

The likes of Qu and Gong will help determine the potential of the Chinese market. Huachen Auctions’ Li says the growth in auction prices for photography have slowed in recent years partly because the pool of buyers in China is too small.

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Photofairs’ Gray hopes to see stronger international interest in Chinese photographers. “There are US and European institutions that have come over this week,” he says. “Japanese photographers are very well established in the market. Chinese photography is the next frontier.”

Photofairs Shanghai takes place at the Shanghai Exhibition Centre until September 10