Art market datapoints of the day, China edition

By Felix Salmon
January 13, 2012

I suspect we’re still only in its early days, but there’s no doubt that we’re in a massive Chinese-art bubble right now. And for proof, all you need to do is look at the league table of the highest-grossing artists of 2011.

If you look at the artists who made the most money at auction in any given year, it’s normally pretty predictable, with Picasso at the top of the list and Warhol increasingly dominating. But here, courtesy of ArtPrice and Bloomberg’s write-up of ArtPrice’s results, is the top of the 2011 league table:

1. Zhang Daqian, $506.7 million

2. Qi Bashi, $445.1 million

3. Andy Warhol, $324.8 million

4. Pablo Picasso, $311.6 million

5. Xu Beihong, $212.9 million

This is in many ways the tip of the art-market iceberg, where most deals — especially in the white-hot contemporary-art scene — are still done privately, rather than at auction. The reason no living artist is on this list is mainly that living artists have gallery representation, and galleries don’t like buying and selling at auction.

But still, the rise of Chinese artists on this league table is nothing short of astonishing. The most expensive artwork sold at auction in 2011 was Qi’s Eagle Standing on Pine Tree; Four-Character Couplet in Seal Script, which sold for $65.5 million in Beijing in May; it beat a major Clyfford Still into second place. (And remember too that this is using a value for the yuan which in many ways is artificially low.)

And the sheer levels here! Picasso has never grossed more than $362.7 million in one year; both Zhang and Qi handily beat that figure in 2011, without anything approaching Picasso’s place in the canon. And the way that these artists came out of nowhere makes Groupon’s growth seem positively sluggish. Here are the Artnet reports for Zhang and Qi:

zhang.tiff

qi.tiff

And lest you think that the growth from 2010 to 2011 isn’t all that impressive, note the little footnote. The 2011 numbers are for the first half of the year only.

Precisely because these artists have almost nothing in the way of a long-term auction history, they’re not going to be showing up in the Mei-Moses art index for a while. That requires paintings to have been sold twice. But when that happens, we’re going to have some very crazy results. Either the index will soar, due to the bubble, or else the first datapoints will come when the paintings being bought today are eventually sold. And that might well be for prices much lower than we’re seeing right now.

Update: Marion Maneker doesn’t believe these numbers. “The tables mysteriously omit Gerhard Richter—a very important living artist—whose auction sales in 2011 were massive,” he writes. “So Artprice may have excluded living artists or have a faulty method for assembling the rankings.”

But the fact is that the tables don’t mysteriously omit Gerhard Richter. According to Artnet — which agrees with Artprice here — Richter sales at auction in 2011 came to a total of $199,897,823 — not enough to crack the top five. that’s a record for the artist, but you can see how it’s much more in line with previous totals than we’re seeing with the Chinese artists. This graph, of Richter’s auction sales, includes all of 2011:

Update 2: Thanks to commenter TWAndrews/Alex Tabarrok/Daniel Lippman for pointing to another possibility here:

There are rigged auction houses all over China and they become the most suitable places for elegant corruption. The briber, first of all, gets a fake painting either from a gallery or a fake painting factory. Then, s/he provides relevant document proof of scholars and experts to take care of the problem of authenticity. These scholars and experts are paid to confirm the authenticity of this fake painting. They falsify every historical detail, evidence of painting style and scientific verification of the materials used. The forged painting is then given to the official as a gift and is auctioned at a very high price. Eventually, there is always someone coming from nowhere who wins the bid. Again, the bidder is a trusted person of the briber. These auction houses get hush money before the whole corruption process is completed.

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