HomeBiographyArtworksSealsArticlesPublicationsReviewsConversationColumnNewsChinese PaintingContact



click to see the scan copy

TIME  Magazine 《时代周刊》

Vol 150 No.9

September 1 1997 一九九七年九月一日刊


TIME, Vol 150 No.9, September 1, 1997

Illustration on the right of the picture:

Zeng Mi’s Two Cows (far left) and Comrade Captain No.3 by Zhu Wei reflect traditional and pop styles of Chinese art.

The Pleasures and Profits in Chinese Art

By Meredith Berkman

Chinese paintings are hot, hot, hot. Here are five rules that could make you a prosperous patron of the arts.

In the three years, landscapes by Li Huayi shot up from less than $4,000 to $25,000.

In Singapore last year, my husband and I bought a small painting by Wei Dong, a Chinese artist who places postmodern, sometimes hermaphroditic figures in serene classical landscapes. His works - usually political parables - can be violent and almost misogynous. ("Too much raw tissue," one critic says). My husband was skeptical (in fact, he loathed the painting), but I admired Wei Dong’s controversial style and his merging of old and new. To placate my husband, I assured him we would be able to sell the piece - which cost us less than US$3,000 - for a sizable profit in a very short time. A year later, Wei Dong’s work sells respectably in Germany and Japan, but its highly doubtful we could sell the painting at this point for more than we paid, even if we wanted to (my husband does, I do not).

Welcome to the unpredictable, highly subjective, intensely personal, frustrating - and furiously growing - world of Chinese art. As China opens up its cultural, as well as economic borders, gallery owners and museum curators are exhibiting dozens of the country’s most talented artists, sparking an international frenzy for mostly mainland Chinese art. Media attention and consumer demand have inflated prices, while serious collectors have been bidding up important works by modern masters (the period loosely defined from the early 1900s to the mid-to-late 1980s).

Many 20th century paintings are now far beyond the means of a middle income collector. Works by major living artists like Fang Zhaolin can cost $50,000 or more, and paintings by the late Zhang Daqian, considered the Chinese Picasso, can sell for $500,000 or more. If name recognition is important and you’re willing to compromise on quality, you can buy a minor work by a major artist for much less. Zhang Daqian, who died in 1983, did thousands of sketches, studies, and small paintings; some of them are still on the market, occasionally for as little as $10,000. One caveat: You may want to hire an art adviser to steer you away from the many Zhang Daqian forgeries. Zhang, himself an occasional forger of old master paintings, has been frequently copied.

But most buyers with limited budgets are betting on unknown contemporary artists (young painters known as the "Post-’89 Group") whose paintings can still be bought for less than $5,000. Even if you’re a scholar of Chinese art, however - someone who has studied the venerable two-thousand-year history of classical Chinese painting - you may have trouble making sense of contemporary art’s wildly divergent styles. They include everything from political pop art to the quiet ink-and-brush paintings of traditional artists. What follows is an art-lover’s guide to making a smart purchase in Chinese contemporary painting. With a budget of $10,000 - and in many cases much less - you can easily find paintings that satisfy both your aesthetic and investment requirements.


Ask 10 art aficionados what they think of a particular painter or painting and you’ll almost certainly get 10 different answers. But if you ask them for their best shopping advice, all tell you the same thing: Buy a painting because you like it, not because you’ve heard that you should. "Don’t just buy with your ears, buy with your eyes," advises Stephen McGuinness, the owner of Hong Kong’s respected Plum Blossoms gallery. Reason: Art is a long-term investment at best, so you’ll probably have to live with your choice for some time. Indeed, you may never be able to sell at a profit.


Where you buy your paintings can be as important as what you buy. That’s because a good gallery will do much of your work for you. Smart gallery owners have already vetted the hundreds of available artists and chosen to represent only those they believe are promising. In addition, a good gallery will aggressively market the artists it represents, sponsoring their shows and lobbying to have their work placed in important exhibitions, fueling further interest in their work. "Only promotion will make the artist famous," says Manfred Schoeni, owner of Hong Kong’s Schoeni Gallery, who recently staged a group exhibit at the Kowloon Joyce Boutique store. "If there’s no demand, the price won’t go up."

Galleries specializing in Chinese contemporary art have sprung up all over Asia - in Taiwan, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and a few in Shanghai and Beijing - but most are based in Hong Kong. Among the most respected, apart from Schoeni and Plum Blossoms, are Hanart TZ and Zee Stone Gallery. Alisan Fine Arts, whose owners, Alice King, is the sister of Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, specializes in the work of Chinese artists living overseas, although the gallery is moving into mainland art. Magazines like Orientations and Arts of Asia can provide you with the names of other galleries and art dealers.

Pick a gallery where you feel comfortable, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Find out who owns the gallery. Has he or she studied art history or is the owner simply a retailer? Ask questions about particular artists. Where are they from? Where were they trained? This can give you an insight into their styles: For example, Beijing artists are generally more political than Hangzhou artists, who, thanks to the fine arts academy there, might display more western influence in their work. How - and where - have they been selling?


While a reputable gallery will do some of your homework, a smart shopper must do the rest. You need to make yourself knowledgeable on the subject of Chinese art. "You have to pound the pavement," says art consultant Mee Seen Loong, the former managing director of Sotheby’s Hong Kong. "Go to auctions. Go to exhibitions. Go to gallery openings."

Warns Christina Chu, curator of Chinese painting and calligraphy at the Hong Kong Museum of Art: "There are masses and masses of kitsch, and a high price has nothing to do with whether a painting is good or not." Violetta Wong, head of the Chinese painting department at Christie’s Hong Kong, says that Chinese and Western paintings should initially be judged the same way: a good work is balanced, expressive, and pleasing. But there’s also a more spiritual element that’s not so easy to define: "Chinese paintings need something else - a feeling of elegance, of artistic literacy," she says.

Art-history texts like Joan Lebold Cohen’s The New Chinese Painting 1949-1986, (Harry N. Abrams, 1987, $19.95) or Michael Sullivan’s Art and Artists of 20th-Century China (University of California Press, $65.00) provide good overviews on the subject. So do museum-published books (and exhibition catalogues) like the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ Tailes form the land of Dragons: 1000 years of Chinese Painting ($65.00) or Hanart TZ Gallery’s China’s New Art Post-1989 ($129.10). Asian art magazines - and even general - interest art magazines - can provide you with information about particular styles and artists.

Since Chinese art is frequently sold at auction by major houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s (both in Asia and in the West), studying their catalogues - past and present - and attending previews and sales are important ways to see what’s available and to track art-market trends. Of course, auctions are also a place to buy, and even collectors with limited budgets should not rule them out. If you’re lucky and you know your Chinese art, you can even end up with a name-brand bargain. "The estimated price [in the catalogue] depends on the market but it also depends on our agreement with the owner," Wong says. "Some either don’t know much or they want to sell quickly." A low estimate will hold down the bids." (For more on buying at auction, see the story on page 5.)


Even if you’re not buying to make a profit, it’s immensely satisfying to identify an artist on the rise. Three years ago, ink-on-paper paintings by Zhu Wei - known for his huge-headed figures and political themes - sold for as little as $1,500. Within months, Zhu Wei had become the most talked-about artist of the Post-’89 Group. His paintings now start at $4,000.

The trick, of course, is figuring out which artists are likely to break out of the pack months or years before they do. "Ask yourself, ‘Will this artist have any influence on the trend he presents?,’" advises Hanart’s owner Chang Tsong Zung. "If not now, then in the future?" Pay attention to the important art shows. Inclusion in exhibitions such as New York’s annual Asian Art Fair (held in March) can be good indicators of an artist’s future success. "You can analyze an artist just as you would stocks," advises Loong. "Is this the sort of painting that would appeal to a wide range of people? Is it controversial or mainstream?" Figurative paintings are safer bets than abstract paintings; decorative pieces are more salable than darker, more complicated works.

At the moment, Hong Kong galleries are doing a brisk business in works depicting Hong Kong’s reunification with China, since people feel they’re buying a piece of history. A Hanart artist, Han Xin, did an entire humorous series involving former Governor Chris Patten and an accordion-playing Chinese president Jiang Zemin. But the market for such works is largely local. Manfred Schoeni warns it could take some time before topical works like these catch on abroad, a prerequisite for higher prices. Violetta Wong of Christie’s - which held its first auction of contemporary works in 1991 - worries that the sheer volume of these paintings suggests that the genre is more commercially driven than artistically motivated. "Before, these artists could only finish one or two paintings a year," she says. "They’re working too quickly now because the market demand is so high. If you want to buy one of these paintings, make sure that technique and training show in the work."

Paying the premium to buy the work of a well-known artist is a smart move only if you want to reduce your investment risk. It’s more likely that such an artist will have a strong secondary market, points out Mee Seen Loong. "If you decide you’re no longer interested, you know there’s someone else willing to buy it from you." But don’t get too swept up by an artist current popularity. The "Four Wus," a group of Shanghai painters of the 1930s, were so successful during that period that there were waiting lists to buy their work. Today, says McGuinness, "you couldn’t give one of their paintings away."


Paintings by artists working in the traditional style are often less expensive than pop art. Eventually, however, they could have a much higher resale value.

Dismissed by some collectors as boring or difficult to differentiate, these classic ink-on-paper works - some of them black-and-white, others splashed with strong colors - can be subtle and subdued, and also strikingly beautiful. "Traditional art," explains Wong of Christie’s, "has been proven by time."

Some experts believe that as mainland Chinese collectors enter the market, they will most likely gravitate towards these historically evocative works. The experts also speculate that non-mainland buyers will eventually want to balance out their heavily modern collections. Interestingly, the quiet landscapes or simple scenes of country life can be noticeably modern, integrating hints of western-style abstraction or surrealism.

The rise of a traditional artist can be just as rapid - and just as unexpected - as the ascent of a pop counterpart. For example, in the past three years, remarkable landscapes by Li Huayi - a Chinese artist who has been living in the United States and whose east-meets-west works had never appeared at auction before - have skyrocketed in price from less than $4,000 to at least $25,000. Li Huayi, in fact, was recently the subject of a solo exhibition at New York’s Kaikodo Gallery.

Finding the next Li Huayi isn’t easy, but you can buy an affordable work by an experienced traditional artist with a solid reputation. The rules for picking the right painting are virtually the same as they are for any expressionist or pop work: Study the artist’s background, consider the opinions of experts, but in the end buy something you think is beautiful. An artist like Zeng Mi - a 62-year-old painter working in the xieyi or "free expression" style - is a good place to start. With average prices starting at about $2,500, Zeng’s quietly powerful work is considered extremely undervalued by people like the Hong Kong Museum of Art’s Christina Chu, who praises Zeng Mi for his "purity of brush and ink."

Clearly, Chinese art should be approached in a thoughtful and methodical way. You may not always make big profits from your purchases, but remember: A painter is only a bad investment if you don’t enjoy seeing it on your wall.









去年在新加坡,我丈夫和我买了一幅魏东的小画,魏东是一个中国画家,他把后现代的,有时是雌雄同体的形象置于平静的古典山水中。他的作品 - 经常是政治寓言 - 有时是暴力的和厌恶女人的。(“太多草纸了,”一个批评家说)。我丈夫充满怀疑(事实上他讨厌那画),但我钦佩魏东富争议的风格和他的古今融合。为安抚我丈夫,我向他保证我们可以卖掉这幅画 - 我们花了不到3000美金 - 在短时间内挣一笔可观的数目。一年后,魏东的作品在德国和日本都卖得很好,但我们还是不太可能在那时把画以高于买价出手,既使我们想卖(我丈夫想,我不)。 

欢迎来到难以预测的、高度主观的、强烈个人的、令人沮丧的 - 并疯狂猛涨的 - 中国美术世界。随着中国开放它的文化和经济边界,画廊主和美术馆长们都争相展出这个国家最有才华的美术家,点燃了全世界对主要是来自大陆的中国美术的狂热。媒体的关注和市场需求使价格狂飙,同时严肃的收藏家不惜血本收集现代大师的重要作品(现代大约定义为1900年代初到1980年代末的时期)。 


但大多数预算有限的买家都将他们的筹码压在还不知名的年轻美术家身上(那些被称作“后89群”的年轻画家),他们的作品还可以低于五千美金的价格买到。就算你是一个研究中国美术的学者 - 研究过中国两千年来璀璨的古典绘画史 - 你也不一定能从当代绘画大相径庭的风格中看出门道来。它们几乎无所不包,从政治性流行美术到静谧的传统笔墨画。下文可视为美术爱好者指南,可帮助你挑选中国当代绘画。如果你有个一万美金的预算 - 在很多情况下可以少得多 - 你很容易找到既能满足你审美需要又能满足你投资要求的作品。 





专门代理中国当代美术的画廊现在在亚洲遍地开花 - 台湾,新加坡,吉隆坡,上海和北京的几家 - 但大多数在香港,其中最受尊重的,除了师尼和万玉堂,还有汉雅轩和Z石画廊,埃丽森工艺美术,它的老板埃丽丝-金是香港特首董建华的妹妹,她专门代理居于海外的中国美术家的作品,现在也转向大陆的画家。诸如《方向》杂志和《亚洲美术》也会提供其他画廊和美术掮客的名字。 




克里斯蒂娜-朱,香港艺术博物馆中国书法和绘画分馆长,警告道:“有大量劣质品存在,而高价并不说明一件作品的优劣。”香港克里斯蒂拍卖行中国画部部长维奥莱塔-黄说,首先应该用同样的方法鉴赏中国画和西洋画:好作品应该是和谐的,有表现力的,且赏心悦目的。但也有一些精神上的元素不那么容易定义:“中国画还需要其他的一些元素 - 一种高雅的和有艺术修养的感觉。” 

美术史课本象琼-科恩的《新中国绘画1949-1986》,(哈里-N-阿卜拉姆斯出版社,1987$19.95)或麦克尔-苏里文的《中国20世纪的美术和美术家》(加州大学出版社,$65.00)都有对这个课题很好的综述。同样还有美术馆出版的书籍(和展览会目录)如波士顿工艺美术博物馆出的《龙之地的故事:中国绘画1000年》($65.00)或者还有汉雅轩画廊出的《后1989中国新美术》($129.10)。亚洲美术类杂志 - 甚至普通艺术杂志 - 都能为你提供有关具体画家或作品风格的知识。鉴于主要的拍卖行如苏世比和克里斯蒂(亚洲及世界各地的)经常拍卖中国美术作品,研究它们的目录- 过去的和现在的 - 参加它们的预拍和拍卖会是使你了解能买到什么和跟踪美术趋势的重要途径。当然,拍卖会也是一个卖场,就算预算有限的收藏者也不应把它排除在外。如果你幸运并且知道你要什么的话,你也可能最后用协议价成交。“(目录里的)估价不光依据市场而且依据我们和卖方的协议,”维奥莱塔-黄说,“有些卖家要么不了解市场要么急于出售。”低估价会抑制叫价。(有关如何在拍卖会购买,请参阅本期第五页的文章。) 


即使你买画不是为了盈利,能捕捉到一个正在上升期的画家也给你带来极大的满足。三年前,朱伟 - 以他的大头像和政治主题而著名 - 的纸墨画最低才卖1500美金。仅只几个月时间,朱伟就成了后89群中最常被提及的画家。他的作品现在至少卖4000美金。 


当前香港的画廊对那些描写香港回归的画作趋之若鹜,因为人们觉得他们是在买一段历史。汉雅轩代理的一个画家韩星创作了一系列包括前港督彭定康和拉手风琴的中国主席江泽民的幽默作品。但这种作品的市场多半仅限于本地。曼弗莱德-师尼警告说这种时事作品可能需要很长时间才能吸引海外市场,而海外市场又是能卖高价的先决条件。克里斯蒂的维奥莱塔- - 克里斯蒂从91年起拍卖当代作品 - 担心这种作品的大量出现暗示这个流派只是商业驱使,而不是出于艺术动机。“以前这些美术家一年才能完成一两幅作品,”她说,“但现在旺盛的市场需求致使他们画得太快。如果你想买这种作品你就得挑能反映出作者技巧和功力的作品。” 




尽管有些收藏者因它们枯燥或难以区分风格而把它们排除在外,但这些古典的纸墨作品 - 有些是黑白的,有些则是重彩的 - 也可能非常细致而柔和,异常之美丽。“传统派绘画,”柯里斯蒂的黄小姐解释道,“是经过时间考验的。” 


一个传统派画家也可能象搞流行的同行们一样迅速地 - 超乎意外地 - 崛起。举例而言,在过去三年里,一个旅居美国的中国画家,他的东西方结合的作品从没在拍卖会上出现过,李华一不同凡响的山水画标价从不到4000美金飙升至25000美金。事实上李华一就是最近在纽约凯克多画廊举办的一个展览上的话题。 

要找到下一个李华一不容易,但你能买到一幅一个富有经验和可靠声誉的传统派画家可承受的作品。挑选一幅正确的传统派绘画的法则和挑选印象派或流行作品的一样:研究画家的背景,考虑专家的建议,但最重要是挑你觉得漂亮的。象62岁的写意风格画家曾宓就是一个很好的起点。平均价格才不到2500美金,曾宓那平静而有力的作品被诸如香港美术馆的克里斯蒂娜- - 她评价曾的画为“笔墨的纯境”- 等人认为严重低估了。