Pablo Picasso has been dethroned.
The world auction market’s top earner in recent years must yield to Chinese artist Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), according to a report from French research company Artprice.
Zhang generated $506.7 million in auction revenue in 2011. Close behind was compatriot Qi Baishi (1864-1957) with $445.1 million. They lead a group of more than 450,000 artists tracked by Artprice. Picasso ranked fourth at $311.6 million.
“When you couple China’s abundance of money and its rich history of collecting in all the categories of art, it’s not a surprise,” said Larry Warsh, a New York-based collector.
The change reflects China’s growing strength in the global art market. Of the approximately $11 billion total world revenue for fine art last year, China’s share was 39 percent, up from 33 percent the year before, Artprice said. The U.S. was No. 2 with 25 percent.
Andy Warhol came in third among artists in the Artprice report, with $324.8 million. The fifth slot was occupied by yet another Chinese name, Xu Beihong (1895-1953), who tallied $212.9 million.
These Chinese “artists are maybe not well-known on the art scene but they are the leading modern masters in China,” said Martin Bremond, head economist at Artprice. “They are on top because China is the No. 1 country at auction and the Chinese are buying their own artists.”
Zhang is famous for his mastery of landscape painting and variety of styles, according to Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society Museum in New York. His 1947 “Lotus and Mandarin ducks” fetched HK$191 million ($24.5 million) at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in May 2011, a record for the artist whose annual auction revenue increased by about 13 times in the past two years.
Qi is best known for his ink depictions of animals, birds and insects on paper and silk, Chiu said. His somber ink painting “Eagle Standing on Pine Tree; Four-Character Couplet in Seal Script” fetched 425.5 million yuan ($65.5 million) at China Guardian Auctions Co. in Beijing in May 2011.
That’s more than last year’s top auction result in the West: Clyfford Still’s abstract painting “1949-A-No.1,” which sold for $61.7 million at Sotheby’s in November.
Picasso held his No. 1 position on Artprice for all but one year since 1997. In 2007, Warhol pushed him into second place.
In 2010, Picasso scored his highest auction tally of $362.7 million, boosted by the record sale of the painting “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” which fetched $106.5 million at Christie’s in New York.
Auction rooms in Hong Kong and mainland China teem with buyers competing aggressively for their heritage. Of the 100 best individual auction results in 2011, 30 were set in Hong Kong, Beijing and Hangzhou, according to Artprice.
‘Its Own Heroes’
“Western heroes are not Chinese heroes,” said Warsh. “China is very nationalistic and demands its own heroes and culture.”
Recognizing the country’s growing role, Christie’s doubled its presence in what it calls “greater China” (Hong Kong, the mainland and Taiwan) in 2011, said Steven Murphy, the company’s chief executive officer.
“The true fact of globalization is here,” Murphy said in a telephone interview. “Both the information about art and ability to see and acquire art in many parts of the world mean that it’s available everywhere, all the time.”