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As Chinese art market crashes, many artists applaud

Chinese contemporary painters hope the collapse will shake out speculators, leaving true collectors.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 7, 2009

Shown here is "The Massacre at Chios" by mainland Chinese artist Yue Minjun at a 2007 Sotheby's preview in Hong Kong. Mr. Yue's "Gweong Gweong," a painting he made in 1993 and sold a year later to a dealer in Hong Kong for $5,000, and was worth $6.9 million last May.

Bobby Yip/Reuters/File



One of the best ways to make a quick buck over the past few years has been to buy contemporary Chinese paintings. The fastest-growing sector of a feverish international art market saw prices leap by multiples of ten or more.

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No longer. The global recession is deflating sales. Today, "the bubble is really bursting," says Beijing painter Zhao Gang, as prices tumble by nearly one-third and record-setting Chinese artists watch their works go unsold at auction.

But few people in the art world here are lamenting the end of an overheated era. "Chinese artists were seen as ATMs," says Jerome Sans, director of the nonprofit Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. "Maybe now they'll stop creating for the market and create for the mind."

Maybe too, he suggests, as the internationally fueled boom runs out of steam, local artists will turn their attention to local buyers, who are just beginning to build a collectors' market.

Prices for Chinese contemporary art have skyrocketed over the past five years. In 2004, only one of the top 10 best-selling living artists was Chinese, according to the website, But by 2007 five of them came from China.

Among them was Yue Minjun, whose paintings of broadly grinning men in a variety of settings have been imitated widely here. "Gweong Gweong," a painting he made in 1993 and sold a year later to a dealer in Hong Kong for $5,000, was worth $636,000 by the time it came up for auction in November 2005.

Last May, it was flipped for $6.9 million.

A handful of other star painters have commanded auction prices in the millions of dollars. Their staggering success has attracted a host of artists feeding a voracious network of galleries that has sprung up here.

"A lot of gold diggers appeared," complains Sheng Qi, a London-trained artist who has seen the price of his paintings rise steadily in recent years. "Anyone could be an artist."

The boom also attracted speculative dealers and collectors, drawn to a market that was expanding even faster than the speed of China's headlong economic growth. "Paintings became just like any other commodity," says Mr. Qi.

"A lot of strange birds came out of the woods," says Mr. Zhao wryly, referring to the speculators who drove the market for Chinese art. "Now they have heard the guns."

"You could see that this would explode one day," says Mr. Sans. "Some prices were beyond craziness. These people were making money on the backs of artists, selling paintings in six months. That's not collecting; it's just making money.