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File photo of a painting by Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi in Hong Kong.

  • Asian art market has typically been driven by savvy investors and China’s nouveau riche
  • Christie’s 2012 annual autumn auction in Hong Kong grossed $ 334 million
  • With a market of burgeoning art buyers, artists from the region are making their mark
  • Hong Kong is now the world’s third largest art market by auction sales

Hong Kong — Chinese artists are painting the globe red and the regional art market is no longer hostage to fickle buyers, the Asia president of auction house Christie’s told CNN.

The Asian art market has typically been driven by savvy investors and China’s nouveau riche. “Some invest in art as though it were a stock market, with artworks that are virtually split into multiples of dematerialized shares,” according to Artprice, an art auction research firm.

Hong Kong’s “success has been marred by the poor reputation of Chinese buyers,” according to a recent report by Artprice. “In Hong Kong, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have both experienced non-payment problems that have led to court proceedings… so much so that to avoid such problems, the major auction houses are now asking buyers to pay a HK$ 1 million (US$ 129,000) advance deposit for the more expensive items.”

Deadbeat art buyers rise in China


Asia’s art market explosion

However, Christie’s Francois Curiel sees this paradigm changing.

“What was interesting this weekend is that with the exception of this picture (“La foret blanche II” by Chu The-Chun) and maybe one or two others, there were no other records,” Curiel told CNN’s Patricia Wu. “There were good, strong, solid prices and it seems that the speculative buyers have left town.”

Christie’s annual autumn auction in Hong Kong, which ended Wednesday, grossed $ 334 million. Although art sales in the region were down by 15% to 25% the first half of the year, sales in the second half of the year bounced back, according to Curiel, Christie’s Asian head.

Asia’s growing art scene is reinforced by various government initiatives and local auction houses. “The relationship between art and money is totally uninhibited in China and generates ever more ambitious projects,” the Artprice report says.

The “world’s first financial center for art” is under construction in the city of Xiamen and is expected to be completed by 2014. The $ 260 million project promises auction sales, exhibitions, appraisal services, galleries, art restorers and other related businesses, according to the developer Beijing Huachen Auctions Co. Hong Kong is also developing a $ 3 billion “integrated arts and cultural district,” in the West Kowloon district, according to a Hong Kong government report.

With a market of burgeoning art buyers, artists from the region are making their mark, too. Their art is being sold for record hammer prices — this year, a Chinese artist Chu The-Chun’s work sold for a record price — the highest ever for this artist at US$ 7.7 million.

“Zeng Fanzhi and Chu The-Chun are now the two Chinese artists in this very elite list of the top 10 living artists bringing more than $ 10 million in the world,” said Curiel, 60, who is a renowned auctioneer in his own right.

“It was unthinkable five years to think they will be in the top 10 living artists in the world — two Chinese artists — but now it’s done, which shows the interest of Chinese contemporary art, not only in China but also in Europe and America.”

Five Chinese artists, including Zeng Fanzhi, figure on Artprice’s list of top 500 contemporary artists in 2012, along with the likes of Damien Hirst.

For Christie’s — which had global auctions and private sales totaling $ 3.5 billion in the first half of 2012 — Asian market share is skyrocketing. Three years ago, Hong Kong accounted for only 3% of global sales; last year, Hong Kong accounted for 20% of sales, Curiel said.

Hong Kong is now the world’s third largest art market by auction sales, according to the Hong Kong government’s investment department.

“Few years ago, it was London, Paris and New York,” Curiel said. “Now, it’s London, Paris, New York and Hong Kong.”

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