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April 9, 2011

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Art bounces back

THE Chinese contemporary art market is red-hot again after records were smashed at a recent auction and pre-sale estimates were left in the dust. Wang Jie reports.

It was a night to remember for the art world, and especially for Chinese contemporary art. The Sotheby's Spring Sale in Hong Kong last Sunday set astronomic figures for Chinese contemporary art from the legendary Ullens Collection, defying speculation that there would be a sharp drop in prices because Ullens was "cashing out."

A 1988 triptych by Zhang Xiaogang "Forever Lasting Love" sold for HK$79.06 million (US$10.1 million), a record for a living Chinese artist.

Since the global financial crisis, the once sizzling market had cooled to a more rational simmer, though there have been signs of recovery.

On Sunday, the 106 pieces (only part) of Belgian collector Guy Ullens' collection of early and rare contemporary art by big names sold for HK$427 million, far exceeding the original estimate of HK$130 million.

Zhang's "Forever Lasting Love" was sold in telephone bid to an anonymous buyer, identified as Westerner to Shanghai Daily. Another work of Zhang's sold for HK$23.06 million.

Besides Zhang Xiaogang, works by Zhang Peili, Geng Jianyi, Yu Youhan, Ding Yi and Liu Wei - all heavyweights in contemporary Chinese art - all set individual auction records for the artists.

When Ullens first announced on February 10 that he would hand over the 106 representative works, including early masterpieces, for auction, many observers were speculating about the future of contemporary Chinese art - some were pessimistic and some puzzled. Was Ullens cashing-out a bad sign? Was Western capital tired of China?

But the outcome was exhilarating, a shot in the arm to the market. Some called it a "crazy night of record breaking."

Ullens and his wife Myriam were early buyers and assembled the most important and comprehensive collection of contemporary Chinese art - they supported contemporary Chinese art when it was largely ignored by the mainstream. The collection represents the birth and evolution of the Chinese avant-garde for nearly two decades; many works are unparalleled in rarity and quality.

Several years ago, critics predicted that the bubble in contemporary Chinese art would soon burst, and this auction was followed closely. Results show that even though Ullens and British collector Charles Saatchi were selling, other Western buyers were not retreating from market investment.

Li Jing, a veteran media person at the auction, said Zhang's two works were purchased by a Western collector in a telephone bid.

Noted critic Gu Zhengqing commented: "Who are the biggest winners in the Ullens auction? Those 'royal' collectors, passionate for contemporary Chinese art, obviously are not. They are too sensible when the price goes up steeply. Consequently, they have nothing in hand. Neither are the new collectors. Since they are new to the game, they are not scared of being trapped. Gallery owners only appear as observers, amazed at how hot the auction market is."

Some observers were wary.

"I don't know how long the crazy auction market will last," says one industry insider, who declined to be identified. "Some are really good pieces, but they're not worth that amount of money. It's like gambling. I'm just curious as to who will be the last to eat bitterness."

Perhaps the biggest winner of this auction is and will be the Ullens couple. This auction was a fraction of their 800 works.

Ullens had said it was his dream to sell the entire collection as a whole, but because of the quantity and price, it had to be sold through lots.

They not only earned their fame in China for their support for Chinese contemporary art but also implemented an all too successful business model for the latters.


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