Best results in 2013: China versus the United States

[27 Aug 2013]


Over the first six months of 2013, the U.S. art market generated some of the best auction results in its history, primarily through Post-War & Contemporary art sales. New York stands out as the absolute capital of the global high-end art market. Between 2007 and 2013, the world’s seven best-ever auction results in Contemporary art were all recorded in New York, and, not surprisingly, at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The two firms’ May sales are generally the most record-breaking events of the year (accounting for 5 of the 7 best results) despite the high quality of their November sessions. Between 2007 and 2012, the best sales turnover figures ranged from $294 million to €363 million; but on 15 May 2013, Christie’s buried the previous record by more than $130 million with a turnover figure of $495 million.

Indeed that historic sale on 15 May 2013 clearly demonstrated how globalized demand on the high end of the art market is constantly pushing up the top limits: 94% of the lots sold (only 6% of the 70 lots offered were bought in) and 9 works sold above the $10 million threshold. These figures reflect not only the hegemony of the United States in terms of its sales strength at the high end of the market, but also the incredible capacity of the U.S. market share to constantly raise the value of its own artists: the top three auction results in 2013 were generated by Jackson POLLOCK, Roy LICHTENSTEIN and Jean-Michel BASQUIAT – each adding several million to their previous records. The top 3 results in 2012 gave a slightly more balanced picture of the art market’s global forces, rewarding works by the European Edvard MUNCH, the American Mark ROTHKO and the Chinese artist, LI Keran.

What does the Chinese market appreciate most?

The high-end of the Chinese art market has slowed considerably. Firstly, the number of Chinese artists ranked in the global Top 50 at auction fell from 5 to 3 (H1 2012 vs. H1 2013) and secondly, the level of competition has substantially declined. In 2012, the Chinese artist Li Keran rivaled Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon to take 3rd place in the ranking with a result of $40.341 million (Mountains in red, Poly International, Beijing, 3 June 2012). This year, the best hammer price for a Chinese artist is in 31st place with a score of $12.760 million (Pine by Li Xiongcai, at Rong Bao Auctions, Beijing, 30 March 2013).
The best result for a Chinese artist so far this year rewarded a work by LI Xiongcai (1910 – 2001), an artist born in Gaoyao in the province of Canton. His father excelled in the art of calligraphy and traditional scroll painting. Li Xiongcai inherited this traditional education before studying in Tokyo and then returned to China (1935) where he taught at the Guangzhou Art Institute, the Guangzhou Art Academy and then the National Art Academy in Chongqing. The prices of his works have risen over 200% in just three years. His career and his artistic language are reassuring for collectors and Chinese investors.
WU Zuoren (1908 – 1997) takes 2nd place for a Chinese artist in 2013 with a landscape from 1977 that has a much more modern feel than the huge scroll by Li Xiongcai. Wu Zuoren produced traditional work (teaching Xu Beihong) as well as more westernized works following his art studies in France and Belgium. The piece that has earned him 41st position in the 2013 global ranking of auction results is in the latter vein. It is an oil-on-canvas that fetched the equivalent of $11.326 million (more than $13m including costs) in Beijing (The yellow blooms on the battlefield smell sweeter, China Guardian, 10 May 2013). That result added no less than $9.8 million to Wu Zuoren’s previous auction record.

Although the Chinese market is slowing this year, it is not through a lack of buyer interest (it has sold more works this year than last year) but rather because major works were scarcer on all segments (Old Masters, Modern and Contemporary). Auction turnover in mainland China fell 22% in the first half of 2013, whereas it rose by 27% in the more international Hong Kong market.