Traditional Chinese Painting, Calligraphy - Big Auction Winners

Shanghai Daily, January 8, 2010


One year ago, as the art market shivered in the global economic downturn, few would have predicted a warm outcome to the big autumn auctions of 2009, barometers of market confidence.

Contrary to most expectations (but not those of some savvy experts), traditional Chinese ink-wash paintings and calligraphyfetched enormous sums. One calligraphy scroll from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) set a record of 108 million Yuan (US$15.81 million).

Meanwhile, the once-overheated contemporary Chinese art scene still has not recovered and a price-value reality check is underway. It's not expected to bounce back in a big way, but experts say the signs are promising and 2010 will be a good year for really good, realistically priced contemporary art.

But the big story is that wealthy collectors are paying astounding sums for traditional art.

"Just look at the successful autumn auctions by Polk, Guardian and Council - I almost can't believe my eyes," says a veteran middle-aged collector surnamed Zhang.

"I bet nobody predicted correctly early in the year that traditional Chinese ink-wash and calligraphy would fetch such astronomical figures."

The turnover of traditional ink-wash painting and calligraphy at China Guardian Auction reached 1.1 billion Yuan last November, representing nearly 72 percent of its total November turnover.

The total turnover at China Guardian in 2008 was 1.8 billion Yuan.

China Guardian was not alone.

The same scenario played out in the Council 2009 Autumn Auction, selling 700 million Yuan of art, and the Beijing Poly Auction, selling 1.578 billion Yuan in artworks. Both reported 300 percent increase from a year earlier.

"The performance of the Chinese art market in the third quarter is much better than that for the rest of the world," says an art market analysis from the Beijing Research Center.

"In particular, ancient Chinese painting and calligraphy, higher one after another, drive the Chinese art market in the second half by 'the warm' turning into 'the hot'," the report said.

"As the bubbles of Chinese contemporary art seem to evaporate, more and more collectors, especially Chinese collectors, are keen on the hidden value of ancient Chinese ink-wash paintings and calligraphy," says Dong Guoqiang, director of Council Auction House, "because they represent the essence of Chinese culture with both art and historical value."

One calligraphy scroll from the Song Dynasty even sold for 108 million yuan at the Guardian, symbolizing for many "the beginning of the 100 million yuan" level for top paintings and calligraphy.

"I am really excited about the results," says collector Zhang. "Why are the prices of Picassos and Dalis are so daunting? Frankly, I think that the Chinese masters were undervalued and now it's time to reduce the price gap."

The passion for superb ancient painting and calligraphy appears widespread.

In China, the art market is closely linked to the country's economic development, says Dong. "The spending power of the new investors with strong financial capital is really beyond imagination."

It is widely known in the art auction circle that the same four or five people are bidding on works above 50 million Yuan.

"Sometimes they don't care about the price, they merely stick to those masterpieces in art history," says Dong. "Today 100 million Yuan may sound incredible but wait and see. The price of the same work may double or triple several years hence. The richest people really earn easy money."

Buy the right piece,buy the most expensive piece - that's the art investment strategy in China.

For example, a traditional ink-wash painting in the Republic of China period (1911-1949) by a not-so-famous artist may sell for 10,000 Yuan, almost the same price it fetched around 100 years ago.

But that's not the case with works by celebrities.

The art market is realizing the value of written letters and calligraphy by Chinese celebrities, important political figures and intellectuals.

Li Shutong (1880-1942), a pioneer in the New Culture Movement and an eminent monk, was also a calligrapher. His works fetched around 1 million Yuan each.

The passion for ancient traditional ink-wash painting and calligraphy has also increased the appreciation and prices of masters of Chinese modern art, including Qi Baishi, Fu Baoshi, Zhang Daqian and Wu Guanzhong.

"At the beginning of 2009, if one piece by one of those masters sold for 20 million Yuan, the auction staff would open a bottle of champagne to celebrate," says Deng Jing, spokesperson at the China Guardian Auction House.

"But the situation is totally different in the fourth quarter. A piece for 20 million Yuan is far below the market price."

For example, one ink-wash by Zhang Daqian was sold for 50 million Yuan at the Council's 2009 Autumn Auction.

"The Chinese art market will be in full swing in the new year," says Dong.

"The market will continue to be the main line of Chinese painting and calligraphy, supplemented by Chinese antiques and Chinese classical paintings."

If high prices are predictable for traditional Chinese paintings, then what of Chinese contemporary art?

"Chinese art market as a whole will be optimistic, and Chinese contemporary art is a part of it," says Dong from Council Auction House. "After a sluggish year, Chinese contemporary art will be on the right track in 2010."

But the bubble and hype surrounding contemporary art is certainly gone, both in the West and the East.

"Buyers are more cautious. Unlike the situation in previous years when famous and not-so-famous artists all sold well, today's buyers are picky in selecting the best of the best," says collector Zhang.

"Clearly, another round of investment boom in art is still going to be focused on traditional ink-wash painting and calligraphy."