NEW YORK—Until recently the career of Chinese-born painter Zhang Xiaogang (b. 1958) was progressing steadily, with prices for his work standing just under the $100,000 mark for his largest paintings in a year-ago show at the Max Protetch Gallery. That all changed on March 31 at Sotheby’s, when one of the artist’s paintings soared to $979,200 during the house’s inaugural New York sale of Chinese contemporary art.
Suddenly, Zhang had become a million-dollar artist. “It took me by surprise,” gallery owner Max Protetch told ARTnewsletter. “I thought we were getting good prices [last year]. The show sold out, which should be good news, but I feel like a jerk for not keeping anything back.”
The exhibition consisted officially of three large (6-by-5-foot) paintings, each priced from $85,000/95,000—and all were snatched up by collectors. Another six paintings kept by the dealer in back also found buyers at the show, the artist’s third at the gallery. (His works also had been shown there in spring 2005 and in 2003; both shows were sold out, with prices topping at $35,000.)
The picture that did so well at Sotheby’s auction was the 1998 Bloodline Series: Comrade No. 120, a 74-by-59-inch oil on canvas that had been estimated at $250,000/350,000. Protetch, who was in the room, reports that the buyer was “a man from Singapore,” adding that he cannot truly say what the going prices for paintings by Zhang currently are, but that they “are going up.”
Although Comrade No. 120 set a dazzling record for Zhang, other works by the artist have also done well at public sales. At that same Sotheby’s auction, a 2004 oil on canvas, Sailor (Girl), reached $486,400 (estimate: $90,000/ 110,000); and a 1998 Comrade No. 4 (Yellow) earned $419,200 (estimate: $50,000/60,000).
Among other auction prices for a Zhang work: $193,348 (estimate: $32,224/45,114), given at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale last October for the 1998 oil on canvas, Yellow Baby Series.
Protetch cites several factors for the dramatic rise in price: “This is the tip of the iceberg. There are a number of things going on. First, it is a good art market internationally, and a lot of first generation [post-Mao Tse Tung] artists, such as Zhang Xiaogang, are coming into their own. You see a lot of people buying into China, with more dollars chasing the few works by these first-generation artists.”
Various other signs also point to the sometimes frantic pace of the Chinese contemporary market. The amount of material artists are producing barely keeps up with demand, says Victoria Lu, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai. “Artists are hiring assistants. They come in and do final touch-ups after their assistants have done everything else.”
Some buyers, both Westerners and Asians, are behaving more like investors than collectors, she adds, “buying for a quick profit. They buy directly from the artist’s studio or from galleries and then go directly to auctions to sell.”
However, Lu believes that prices for works by contemporary Chinese artists still have a long way to go before reaching the levels of their American and western European counterparts: “The prices are very high and getting much higher but seem reasonable. There is still big room to go into big prices.”
Sotheby’s Chinese contemporary art specialist Xiaoming Zhang agrees: “Just in the past year we have seen prices increase by three times.” However, the soaring prices reflect “a market finding its true level,” as opposed to speculative buying, she says. The big surge in prices dates to 2004, the year that Sotheby’s began holding auctions of Chinese contemporary art.
Since the March 31 sale, Zhang has been “in a state of shock,” Protetch says. “He can’t believe it, either.” The dealer notes that he and others have been unable to reach the artist: “I want to ask him [how] we should price his new paintings, but he has been in seclusion. He’s not answering his phone.”