In many ways, this past weekend’s auction of contemporary art from the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) at Phillips de Pury London passed without any great surprises. As predicted in numerous media reports and the auction house’s own presale estimates, Russian artist Erik Bulatov’s ENTRANCE—NO ENTRANCE (1995) was the top lot with its final sale price of £713,250 ($1,095,480), including buyer’s premium. Unsurprisingly, works by Russian and Chinese artists sold well, vastly outperforming the limited number of works by Brazilian and Indian artists (three and eight works, respectively).
What was particularly interesting about the BRIC sale, however, in the footnotes to the optimistic headlines, were the prices for the Chinese artists. Let us take, for example, Yue Minjun, widely regarded as one of China’s greatest contemporary artists. After riding the 2006–2008 boom in Chinese contemporary art that saw several of his works fetch multimillion prices (Gweong-Gweong, 1993, and Execution, 1995) Minjun’s works have brought considerably lower prices at auction.
Several weeks ago at Sotheby’s, On the Lake, a prized 1994 work made just after the artist had settled upon his signature style of repeated smiling faces, sold for HK$14,660,000 ($1,888,208). Although it sold for more than 40% above Sotheby’s high estimate, its price was well short of the record $5,996,932 paid for Execution, the highest-priced work in the painting’s peer group of works from the mid–1990s.
Although the “99 Idol” series is not part of Minjun’s highest-valued group of paintings, a look at how one of his works from that group performed at the BRIC sale on Saturday provides an interesting indication of current market strength for the artist. 99 Idol Series No. 73 (1996, pictured left, courtesy Phillips de Pury London) sold for £70,850 ($108,819) against a pre-auction estimate of £30,000–50,000 ($46,090–76,817), which leads us to believe that Minjun is one artist who has definitely recovered. To understand the extent of this recovery, we should recall that three works from the “99 Idol” series failed to attract buyers at Christie’s in December 2008 and May 2009.
Zhang Xiaogang is another artist who achieved record-breaking prices between 2006 and 2008, notably for Bloodline: The Big Family, No.3, which sold for HK$47,367,500 ($6,083,363) in April 2008.
This past weekend, Xiaogang’s Amnesia and Memory (2006) sold for £385,250 ($591,705) against a pre-auction estimate of £220,000-320,000 ($337,898–491,488). Although Amnesia and Memory did quite well relative to its estimate, the market for Xiaogang’s works in general is still establishing its footing; the artist has continued to see a substantial number of buy-ins at auction, including several at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in early April.
It is worth briefly considering two highly valued Chinese artists whose works did not see strong demand at the BRIC auction. Zeng Fanzhi, who traditionally does quite well, saw two untitled works (Untitled No. 6 and Untitled No. 10, both from 2004) under-perform their pre-auction estimates on Saturday. Liu Xiaodong’s Sleeping and Insomnia Series, No. 17 (1996) failed to find a winning bidder at all.
On the whole, however, this past weekend’s BRIC sale, along with the respectable results at Sotheby’s weeklong sale of Asian art in early April, provides the strongest indication yet that the market for Chinese contemporary art has stabilized considerably and could be in for a period of restrained (i.e., healthy) growth going forward. We eagerly await the series of Asian auctions at Christie’s Hong Kong in late May.