China: Cultural Evolution

When the auctioneer's gavel went down at a Sotheby's sale in Hong Kong in April, an anonymous Asian collector had bid more than $3.6 million for an oil painting entitled Pink Lotus by Chinese artist Chang Yu, a record for modern Chinese art. That sale -- at more than four times the expected price -- was no freak occurrence. Prices for contemporary works by Chinese artists have been skyrocketing as connoisseurs both domestically and abroad have been snapping them up.

Such sums might seem modest next to the $95.2 million paid for Picasso's Dora Maar au Chat in New York this spring. But there's no denying that collectors worldwide are getting excited about China. "The art is approachable for the Western eye and has an immediacy to the Westerner with an interest in China," says Henry Howard-Sneyd, managing director for Asia at Sotheby's. "It's an exciting, hip, and cool place to be collecting."

China's new contemporary works aren't just adorning the walls of Manhattan apartments. Newly minted mainland millionaires are loading up, too, helping to double or triple prices in the past 18 months. Gu Wenda's 12-ft.-by-4-ft. ink paintings, which sold for $35,000 18 months ago, now fetch as much as $150,000, while paintings by Paris-based Yang Jie Chang have zoomed up to $100,000 from $30,000 or so.

Some of the most popular pieces are by the first generation of avant-garde artists to emerge after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Yue Minjun, who paints laughing figures with oddly uniform teeth, and cynical realist painter Fang Lijun, whose trademark bald-headed portraits are widely imitated, have garnered a huge following. Feng Zhengjie's Andy Warhol-inspired portraits of Mao now sell for as much as $62,000, more than triple the price 18 months ago.

Some argue that commercial success has discouraged artists from taking risks and trying new styles. "A tremendous number of artists find a formula and stick to it," says Elisabeth de Brabant, co-director of Art Scene Warehouse gallery in Shanghai. But other strong selling artists, such as Zeng Fanzhi (whose influences include Francis Bacon) and Zhang Xiaogang (best known for his ethereal portraits based on old photographs), continue to stake out new ground.

Is the market getting overheated? Not yet, say experts, who point out that Chinese artists still look cheap when compared with their Western counterparts. But that gap will steadily narrow as increasingly affluent Chinese collectors buy works by their compatriots. "In 10 years the most expensive work of art [in the world] will be Chinese," says New York dealer Michael Goedhuis. "It's a matter of national pride."

By Frederik Balfour in Shanghai

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