$10 million painting boosts Chinese contemporary market

By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A triptych oil painting by Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang sold for $10.1 million in Hong Kong on Sunday, which Sotheby’s said was a record auction price for a contemporary artwork from China.

In a $54.8 million sale of contemporary Chinese art from the collection of Belgian collector Baron Guy Ullens, a packed auction room bid ferociously for 106 works acquired over decades by the now retired tycoon.

The star lot was Zhang’s early 1988 work “Forever Lasting Love” of half naked figures in an arid landscape suffused with mystical symbols. This fetched HK$79 million, more than double its pre-sale high estimate of HK$30 million.

The price was higher than the $9.5 million paid for a Zeng Fanzhi canvas in 2008 and a series of massive gunpowder works by Cai Guoqiang that fetched a similar price in 2007.

Sunday’s auction tripled the pre-sale estimate and all works were sold. “This represents the entire spectrum of contemporary Chinese art,” said Kevin Ching, chief executive of Sotheby’s Asia. “I think everyone would be proud to be able to own a piece of that history, that process and a part of that vision.”

Zeng, Cai and Zhang are among a vanguard of Chinese contemporary artists whose edgy, subversive early works were embraced by Western collectors and critics, driving a bubble in the market that burst with the global financial crisis in 2008.

Experts said the results were partly due to Ullens’s stature as a Chinese art visionary but the sale could give a symbolic boost for the market.

“I would call this a recovery,” said Uli Sigg, a European collector attending the sale. “I was bidding, but the prices were too high,” Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China who has amassed around 2,000 works of Chinese art, told Reuters.

New individual auction records were also achieved for Zhang Peili whose “Series “X?” No. 3″ sold for HK$23 million and Geng Jianyi, whose “Two People Under a Light” made HK$18.6 million.

Others said demand among Asian buyers was growing for a market overshadowed in recent years by traditional art categories such as Chinese imperial ceramics and classical paintings, which have boomed due to dwindling supplies and demand from Chinese buyers.

“It’s great to see collectors in Asia engaging with modern and contemporary art,” said Magnus Renfrew, head of Art HK, a contemporary art fair. “In the early phase of the market in around 2006, the majority of collectors were from the West. It’s very much switched now. Chinese buying and Indonesian buying.”

Ullens and his wife Myriam, who set up the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing to promote Chinese avant-garde art globally, said the sale did not mark an abandonment of their longstanding commitment to Chinese art.

“His dream is to support and promote a younger generation of artists, as he did with the first generation 25 years ago,” said UCCA in a statement.

(Editing by David Stamp)

$10 million painting boosts Chinese contemporary market