Chinese contemporary art is the fastest-growing segment in the international art market. The prices of works by contemporary Chinese artists have increased by at least 2,000 percent since 2004, with paintings that were once worth less than $50,000 now fetching over $1 million. This boom has been felt more strongly than anywhere else, with China spawning 1,600 auction houses and the first generation Chinese contemporary-art collectors.

There has been a lot of criticism about the craze for Chinese contemporary arts. Chinese collectors may be using auction houses on the mainland to increase prices and engage in widespread speculation just like they would trade stocks or real estate. Artists who claim they buy works at a bargain price and then sell them for ten to ten times their original value-sometimes more.

The market for Chinese contemporary art has doubled in value over the last three years, according to those who have entered it. The first New York sale by Sotheby of Asian contemporary art was dominated in part by Chinese artists in March 2006. This March’s sale brought in $13 million. In March 2006, $23 million was raised for the same sale. And in April, Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale, which included Chinese contemporary art, netted nearly $34 million. Since 2004, Christie’s Hong Kong has sold Asian contemporary art. The $11 million in 2005 sales were dwarfed by $40.7 million from one evening sale in May.

These figures are impressive, but they don’t even begin to show the incredible success of a few Chinese artists at auction: Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang. Zeng Fanzhi’s Mask Series No. 6 (1996) was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong for $9.6 Million, a record price for contemporary Chinese art in May.

Zhang Xiaogang’s oil paintings of large, sad faces, reminiscent of Family Photos taken during the Cultural Revolution, have seen their record increase from $76,000 in 2003 to $2.3 Million in November 2006 to $6.1M in April 2007.

Cai Guo Qiang’s gunpowder drawings were recently presented at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. A set of 14 pieces sold for $9.5 million in November 2006.

According to the Art Price Index 35 out of 100 top prices at auction for contemporary living artists last year went to Chinese artists, surpassing Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst as well as a number of Western artists.

Kevin Ching, CEO, Sotheby’s Asia, says, “Everybody looks to the East, to China, and that includes the art market.” “Despite the subprime crisis in America or the fact some other financial markets seem jittery, the entire business community still has great faith and belief in China, which was bolstered in part by the Olympics in 2010 and the World Expo Shanghai 2010.

However, there are signs that the Chinese art market is slowing internationally. In March’s Asian contemporary art sale, 20% of lots sold by Sotheby’s found no buyers. Even works by high-record-setters like Zhang Xiaogang barely exceeded their low estimates. According to Xiaoming Zhang (a specialist in Chinese contemporary art at Sotheby’s New York), “The market is maturing, so we can’t sale everything anymore.” “Collectors are smarter and now focus on specific artists, periods, or certain materials.”

Western galleries are keen to pursue Chinese artists, who were not well-known until a few years back. Acquavella Galleries has signed Zeng Fanzhi in New York in a two year deal worth more than $20 million according to a Beijing Gallerist. William Acquavella declined comment. Zhang Xiaogang, Zhang Huan and Ai Weiwei have joined PaceWildenstein. Mary Boone also showed last spring with Liu Xiaodong and Zhang Xiaogang. Nearly every major New York gallery signed on a Chinese artist recently: Yan Pei Ming, Xu Zhen, Huang Yong Ping, James Cohan, Yang Fudong, Marian Goodman, Sperone Westwater, and Yang Fudong. They are now in private and public collections, which have so far not been particularly interested in Asian contemporary art.

Max Protetch, a New York dealer who represents artists from China since 1996, says that “the market hasn’t behaved like I expected.” “We knew that Chinese artists would experience the same process of critical evaluation as other art around the globe. It was my assumption that certain artists would be overlooked, but this has not been the case. All of them have been elevated. It appears to be an uncritical market.

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