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New Shanghai Art Fair Creates International Stir

A newcomer to the art-market calendar has opened on a positive note. As dealers in London and New York waited for signs of an impending recession, the first truly international contemporary art fair in China opened in Shanghai—and the results surpassed the organizers’ best expectations.

SHANGHAI—A newcomer to the art-market calendar has opened on a positive note. As dealers in London and New York waited for signs of an impending recession, the first truly international contemporary art fair in China opened in Shanghai—and the results surpassed the organizers’ best expectations.

The fair, dubbed ShContemporary, is the brainchild of Swiss art dealer Pierre Huber. Housed in the faded, palatial splendor of the 1950s Sino-Soviet Mission, it provided a blend of Eastern and Western art from galleries across the world. A total of 130 galleries from 23 countries participated in the fair, which attracted more than 25,000 visitors during its opening and subsequent four-day run (Sept. 6-9), according to organizers.

Huber, 65, conceived the idea four years ago. When he suggested that Art Basel, the world’s biggest and most successful contemporary art fair, extend its activities to China, he was turned down, whereupon he seized the initiative himself.

Among the works on offer, a portrait of a nude man with a dog by Lucian Freud was priced at $16 million (£7.9 million) at Galleri Farschou, Copenhagen; and a late society portrait by Andy Warhol was offered at $6 million. The highest-priced Asian art on view ran about $1 million.

At first it appeared that most business was being done at the lower end of the market. Red dots accumulated rapidly on the colored photographs of children in exotic outfits by Zhang Peng, priced at $10,000 each. The Art Seasons gallery, which was showing the artist’s work, said buyers had come from Europe, Indonesia, Korea and Singapore.

But higher-end offerings quickly came into their own. By day two, New York dealer James Cohan had sold a video by Bill Viola for $260,000 and a sculpture by Nam June Paik for $450,000 to a Taiwanese collector. Dealer Alexander Ochs, Berlin and Beijing, had virtually sold out of works by Chinese artists, priced up to $200,000 each.

Among the Western collectors to have an impact was Miami property developer Craig Robins, who bought an installation by Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. The installation, containing the message Rich Bastards Beware, was priced at $200,000. A life-size auto-rickshaw, made by Indian artist Jitish Kallat from simulated bones, carried a price tag of $125,000 and was snapped up by British collector David Roberts.

Hong Kong realty heiress and dealer Pearl Lam entertained lavishly at her adjoining mansion on exclusive Hengshan Road. Christopher Davidge, the former chief executive of Christie’s who blew the whistle on the collusive “price-fixing” case that shook the art world several years ago (ANL, 12/11/01, pp. 1-2), was among the guests. Also on hand were Simon Groom, curator of Tate Liverpool’s recent Chinese show; Howard Bilton, Hong Kong businessman and instigator of the Sovereign Art Prize for Asian art; and Philip Dodd, the former Institute of Contemporary Arts director who is working on a digital arts festival in the city.

Most dealers confirmed excellent sales. Some, though, were critical of stands occupied by auctioneers from London, Paris and Beijing who were promoting future sales. This is a sore point because Chinese artists, like Chinese collectors, have tended to deal directly with auction rooms rather than with galleries.

But Huber believes that attitudes are changing: “We have seen unexpectedly strong Chinese buying at the fair, with one collector snapping up 15 works and several Chinese artists buying work, too.”

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