Contemporary Chinese art: dwindling supply puts upward pressure on auction prices



The major auctions of contemporary Chinese art traditionally take place in April and October and, for several years, Christie’s has outdone its main rival, Sotheby’s, in this segment. With the eclipse of the Taiwan auctions, the number of transactions fell last year. In 2002, 40% fewer lots came up for sale than in 2000. But turnover has remained unchanged.

Contemporary Chinese art
2002 auction sales turnover / weight by country

2002 saw two impressive record sales. The first was for a work by ZAO Wou-Ki, the very large format « 1.4.66 », which sold for HKD6.8 million at Christie’s Hong Kong on 27 October. The second was for an ink and colour painting by WU Guanzhong, Mulberry Grove. It was expected to go for HKD600,000-800,000 the next day at Sotheby’s but the hammer finally came down at HKD2.8 million. A fine installation by CAI Guoqiang (his first to come up for auction) underlined collectors’ enthusiasm for this vogue artist. His Mao (a boat lit with lanterns), estimated at USD60,000-80,000, sold for USD130,000 at Christie’s on 14 November last year. Six months before, his seven panelled ink work Certain Lunar-Eclipse had sold for USD 200,000, seven times its low estimate. Another highly sought-after artist, increasingly hard to track down at auction, is CHEN Yifei. He too doubled his estimates with The Stone Walk (HKD550,000), an oil on canvas from 1990. This was the only of the artist’s works to appear at auction last year.

But while collectors are willing to bid enthusiastically for top quality works and for the artists who came to prominence at the biennales and other major forums, they are not interested in lesser quality pieces. The bought-in ratio for contemporary Chinese work is still low, but rose from 10% to 13% between 2000 and 2002. Over the same period prices trended down. Artprice’s index for the movement touched a low of 14% in 2002. This suggests that the average contemporary Chinese artwork is not a profitable investment over five years.