As the years go by, China’s art market is gradually opening up to Western art, driven partly by the initiatives of Western auction houses who inform and advise Chinese collectors and partly by an increasingly energetic museum policy aimed at promoting the best Western art to the Chinese public. Although cultural diversity is, a priori, deeper rooted and more commonplace in Hong Kong, it is gaining ground in mainland China, especially in Shanghai.
The Shanghainese news could hardly be denser regarding the local population’s exposure to the best of Western art: after a masterful retrospective of 250 works by Alberto GIACOMETTI in the artist’s very first exhibition in China, Shanghai’s Yuz Museum has just opened what is being billed as the most important Shanghai exhibition of the year, with 102 works from Andy WARHOL’s Shadows series (29 October 2016 to 15 January 2017). In addition, France’s Centre Pompidou has sent 71 iconic works from its permanent collections – essentially French creations from the beginnings of Fauvism to the late 1970s – to the Shanghai Exhibition Center (Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, until 15 January 2017). The prestigious selection includes works by Picasso, Matisse and Fernand Léger as well as Marcel DUCHAMP’s La Roue de bicyclette never before seen in Shanghai.
This year, the Chinese public (who ten years ago were generally unaware of Picasso) is now discovering the grandeur of Giacometti’s superb solitary walkers, the repetitive vitality of Andy Warhol and the great revolutions in the history of Western art in a high quality program of exhibitions that should be profoundly beneficial to opening the Chinese market to the signatures on show.
Western art is also gaining ground via other routes in Shanghai and particularly via the auction market with Christie’s opening a branch in the city in 2013. Although the famous English company (founded in 1766) obtained a license to organize auctions in Shanghai three years ago, the beginnings of the Shanghainese auction market date back to 1994 when China Guardian organized their first sale there (it was also the year Christie’s and Sotheby’s both opened representative offices in the city). At that time, artworks by major Western signatures were unavailable (or extremely rare) at Chinese auction sales. Christie’s has therefore been working towards an opening of the market for three years, by mixing Asian and Western art in its catalogs.
Christie’s most recent sales were held 22 October 2016 with works by Chinese artists LI Huayi, LI Jin and ZENG Fanzhi and also, for the first time in Shanghai, works signed works by Max ERNST, Fernando BOTERO, Yves KLEIN, Olafur ELIASSON and KAWS. The overall result was positive, with a total turnover of $10.4 million, of which $8.4 million from its “prestige” sale. The operation was successful for Fernando Botero’s Woman in a Green Dress and his sculpture Maternity, Warhol’s Clockwork Panda Drummer, Bernard Buffet’s Emile, Max Ernst’s Ohnetitel, which all sold. Olafur Eliasson’s Black Activity Sphere also sold ($177,600) as did three works from Tom Wesselmann’s Seascape with Clouds series and an Untitled work by the American artist KAWS (within its estimated range at $251,000). Lastly, and more surprisingly, a painting by Françoise Gilot, Metamorphosis, doubled its high estimate selling for $115,000.
Although the sale was not a total success (among the unsold were Roy Lichtenstein’s Still Life – Red Apples estimated at over a million dollars, Yves Klein’s blue Monochrome offered at approximately $200,000 and a Rauschenberg painting, Garlic Ember, estimated approximately $100,000), it nevertheless indicates that the Shanghainese art market has recently acquired a much higher level of confidence vis-à-vis Western art.
The acceleration of demand for Western art in China is also being driven by the museum industry with several hundred new museums recently opening across China. The Long Museum in Shanghai, a private museum founded by Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian, chairman of Sunline Group, is a perfect example. In recent months Liu Yiqian has given his museum a magnificent Nude with Cat by Tsuguharu Foujita (which he acquired at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for the record price of $5 million on 3 April 2016) and one of Modigliani’s finest works, the famous Reclining Nude, that he purchased in November 2015 at Christie’s New York.
Western art is beginning to take its place in the permanent collections of Chinese museums and the pace of this trend should accelerate among private collectors with the development of the auction market, but also via the art fairs: the Shanghai Art Fair (3-6 November 2016) will be celebrating its 20th anniversary with a special focus on works by Picasso, Rembrandt, Chagall, Monet and Renoir alongside works by Xu Beihong and Zhang Daqian.