Vol 150 No.9, September 1, 1997
on the right of the picture:
Mi’s Two Cows (far left)
and Comrade Captain No.3 by
Zhu Wei reflect traditional and pop styles of Chinese art.
Pleasures and Profits in Chinese Art
paintings are hot, hot, hot. Here are five rules that could make you a
prosperous patron of the arts.
the three years, landscapes by Li Huayi shot up from less than $4,000 to
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).
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).
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.
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
ONE: BUY WHAT YOU LIKE
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.
TWO: PICK A REPUTABLE GALLERY
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."
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.
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?
THREE: TEACH THYSELF
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
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.
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.
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.)
FOUR: GET IN EARLY
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
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.
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
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."
FIVE: DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE TRADITIONAL
by artists working in the traditional style are often less expensive
than pop art. Eventually, however, they could have a much higher resale
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."
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
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.
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
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
- 我们花了不到3000美金 -