Jack Ma's Paradise lost: charity art sale distorts market, say critics

Art expert and blogger both critical of the HK$42 million sale for charity of Paradise, which Ma painted with Zeng Fanzhi - whose own 'Self-portrait' didn't find a buyer

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 October, 2015, 7:19pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 October, 2015, 7:19pm

The general feeling in the art market is that the first batch of autumn auctions in Hong Kong did pretty well, all things considered. Even Sotheby’s long-suffering share price has racked up a 3.5 per cent gain since October 3, the first day of its sales at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The sales were not without controversy, though. 

Alibaba’s Jack Ma sold his first attempt at oil painting for a staggering HK$42.2 million during Sotheby’s October 4 evening sale.

The amateur artist created Paradise with help from blue-chip Chinese contemporary artist Zeng Fanzhi to raise money for Ma's environmental conservation charity. The painting was estimated at a mere HK$1.5 million to HK$2.5 million, so the auction room went wild when the bids started doubling, then tripling.

It might have been great news for planet earth, but was it great news for the art market?

Sotheby’s ... strategy of putting Self-portrait after     Paradise didn’t work
Li Suqiao

It’s not the first time Sotheby’s has held a charity sale in the middle of a regular Hong Kong auction. On October 6, 2013, two works of art were sold during the contemporary Asian art auction to raise money for the First Initiative Foundation. But the practice is not without its critics, since the prices fetched by charity lots may not be a useful reference for the broader art market.

The HK$42.2 million winning bid for Paradise came from Ma’s friend and well-known philanthropist Qian Fenglei, and it accounted for 7 per cent of the value of sales that evening, giving Sotheby’s final tally a significant boost.

Qian’s bid would have been influenced by his wish to help Ma’s charity rather than being a reflection only of the value of the artwork.

As Chinese art expert Li Suqiao pointed out in his online column after the sale, art collectors clearly didn’t feel as charitable towards Zeng’s own Self-portrait, a 1996 work valued at up to HK$35 million that couldn’t find a buyer in the very same sale. Li said Self-portrait was an important work by the artist, so clearly there was no relation between prices for charity art pieces and the art market.

“Sotheby’s deliberate strategy of putting Self-portrait after Paradise didn’t work,” he wrote, implying that Zeng would have benefitted from the publicity generated by the latter.

A Chinese article on Artnet, an art market website, also blamed the sale of Paradise for muddying the waters.

“The fact that a new artist would sell a work for 17 times the upper estimate is very rare, and the whole thing is ridiculous,” wrote Haowen Li. The fact that it was sold directly by the two artists in an auction challenged the tradition that auction houses would only focus on the secondary market, the article continued. “Breaking the rules means certain orders [in the market] will get messed up.”

Ma has auctioned his own works before. He’d previously raised money for charity by putting up Chinese ink works for sale. These solo efforts had raised the ire of people who thought he was having a joke at their expense.

“Mr Ma Yun, the way you sell your own paintings is a humiliation to art and the art ecosystem. You don’t understand the core value of art, like a newborn baby knows nothing about the Internet,” wrote Chinese art commentator Lin Zhenglu on his blog last year, when a work by Ma fetched 2.4 million yuan in a charity auction.

Ma may not know much about art, but one thing he will have learned is that art critics are hard to please.