Drawing Week in Paris … and the impact of the Chinese market

[29 Mar 2016]


This week the Paris art market is dominated by three important drawing fairs: the Salon du Dessin with a prestigious selection of Old Master, Modern and Contemporary works (25-30 March at the Palais Brongniart), Drawing Now with recognised Contemporary artists (30 March – 3 April at the Carreau du Temple) and DDESSIN with a selection of emerging artists (1-3 April at the Atelier Richelieu). Together, the three fairs provide a useful gauge of a segment that is today well established in major art collections and auction sales around the world, and its best results in 2015 clearly illustrate the impact of the Chinese market on its development.

In general, the drawing segment is still cheaper than the painting and sculpture segments. In 2015, the world’s top 20 art auction results were dominated by paintings by the likes of Picasso, Modigliani, Rothko, Twombly, Van Gogh, Warhol, Lucian Freud, Monet, Mondrian, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, etc. with results in 8 and 9 figures. However, one drawing made it into this prestigious ranking: Eagle, Rock and Flora by the Chinese artist Pan Tianshou fetched approximately $40 million at China Guardian.
Active in the 20th century, PAN Tianshou is sold almost exclusively in China (94% of his market), but his plastic and theoretical contributions have earned international recognition. Considered the most important traditional Chinese painter in the tradition of Wu Changshuo, Qi Baishi and Huang Binhong, the prices of his works have recently been catching up with those of QI Baishi (whose Eagle Standing on Pine Tree fetched more than $65 million at China Guardian in 2011, i.e. the second most expensive drawing ever sold at auction after Edvard MUNCH’s The Scream which fetched $107 million at Sotheby’s in New York in 2012).

Apart from Munch, Raphael, Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne, the most expensive drawings on the auction market are by Chinese artists, sold almost exclusively in mainland China and Hong Kong. Indeed, the Chinese market is currently experiencing strong price appreciation on drawings and works of calligraphy, considered arts of excellence in the Chinese tradition. China now accounts for 58% of global auction turnover in the drawing segment, and 72% if we add Hong Kong’s results to those of mainland China. This compares with 13% for the United States, 7% for the UK, and 3% for France… and the vitality of the French drawing market is largely due to its historical connections with Modern Chinese artists who chose Paris to confront their culture with 20th century Western modernity. At French auctions, the best works by those artists are hotly pursued by French, European and Chinese collectors. In 2015, the Chinese artists Gu Quan, Zao Wou-Ki and San Yu generated the best French auction results (in all mediums), ahead of works by Pablo Picasso and Jean Dubuffet. The year’s top French result was $6.2 million for a suspended roll attributed to Quan Gu, an artist active in the 18th century.

A long-term graph of the best auction results in the field of drawing shows that the explosion of the drawing market is a recent phenomenon that more or less coincides with the development of the Chinese market. Indeed, all the big results for drawings by Western art’s major signatures have been recorded since 2000. However, a number of other factors have contributed: the increasing rarity of paintings by the great masters has naturally generated price inflation for their works on paper, and, drawing is no longer considered an inferior medium beneath painting. The hierarchy of mediums has shifted in favour of drawing and today it represents 24% of total turnover on the global art auction market, a share that has doubled in 10 years!