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Top Chinese Contemporary Artists

[17 Aug 2018]

It’s Top 10 Friday! Every other Friday Artprice posts a theme-based auction ranking. This week we pick out the Top 10 performing Contemporary Chinese artists, ten years after the extraordinary peaks reached by some of the country’s most fashionable artists.

Last year (end-June 2017 to end-June 2018) two Chinese Contemporary artists, Chen Yifei and Zhou Chunya, are among the global Top 10 Contemporary artists by annual auction turnover, each with more than 40 million dollars for the 12-month period and both beating Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst! Their very different styles reflect two trends that are highly valued by major Chinese collectors: on the one hand, Yefei’s very realistic paintings and on the other Chunya’s freer style that is more likely to attract the interest of international collectors.

Rank Artist Hammer Price ($) Artwork Sale
1 CHEN Yifei (1946-2005) 22 640 280 Warm spring in the jade pavilion
19/12/2017 China Guardian Beijing
2 ZHOU Chunya (1955) 6 743 740 Chinese tone
19/06/2018 China Guardian Beijing
3 ZHANG Xiaogang (1958) 6 211 340 Bloodline: The Big Family No.1
19/06/2018 China Guardian Beijing
4 QIU Hanqiao (1958) 5 751 438 Mountain rhyme
22/07/2017 Hangzhou Jiashi Auction
5 LIU Wei (1965) 4 534 985 Revolutionary Family Series: Travel Time 31/03/2018 Sotheby’s Hong Kong
6 AI Xuan (1947) 3 762 296 Aspirant 19/06/2018 China Guardian Beijing
7 ZENG Fanzhi (1964) 3 134 808 The mask series No.16 19/12/2017 China Guardian Beijing
8 REN Zhong (1976) 2 760 406 Nine dragons and sea 30/04/2018 Council Shanghai
9 YUE Minjun (1962) 2 484 536 Time drama
19/06/2018 China Guardian Beijing
10 LIU Ye (1964) 1 774 669 Red Yellow Blue
19/06/2018 China Guardian Beijing
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Exceptional new records

Chen Yifei is essentially China’s most important realist painter. He became famous by specializing in portrait and landscape oil paintings before turning to traditional scenes that earned him the etiquette “romantic realist”. Born in Ningbo in 1946, Chen Yifei had a long and distinguished career in China as a painter and film-maker. He died in Shanghai in 2005. He also made a name for himself in the United States, having lived and worked in New York between 1980 and 1990 and exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1999. But his works remain extremely rare on the US market. The explosion of his prices (his price index is up + 956% since 2000) is based solely on the strength of demand in China and Hong Kong. One of his works – a painting measuring nearly two and a half metres titled Warm Spring in a Jade pavilion – recently fetched a new record of $22.6 million. China Guardian offered the painting last December with an estimate of 3 to 5 million dollars. The new record adds $10 million to his previous record ($12.5 million for Wind of Mountain Village,1994, on 24 May 2011 at China Guardian in Beijing) and makes Chen Yifei the most expensive Chinese Contemporary artist of the year. Over the 12 months to end-June 2018, his works generated no less than $47 million on the auction market… $7 million more than Jeff Koons, the world’s most successful Contemporary sculptor. Another recent auction record confirms the current strong appetite among Chinese collectors for realist paintings: Ai Xuan’s Aspirant fetched $3.7 million at China Guardian on 19 june last.

The second Chinese artist in Top 10, painter and sculptor Zhou Chunya, represents another strong trend in the Chinese market… a fusion of various influences. Trained as a propaganda painter during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Zhou Chunya gained international fame by repeatedly painting ‘portraits’ of his Alsatian dog, Heigen, in his series Green Dogs. In a way, the dog functions as proxy self-portrait allowing him to express a whole panoply of emotions in a dynamic and free manner… a fusion of his own artistic background with an Expressionist spirit encountered during his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kassel, Germany. A key figure in the Chinese cultural scene, Zhou Chunya is vice president of the Sichuan Association of Fine Arts, director of the Committee of the Art of Oil Painting and vice president of the Chengdu Fine Arts Association. In 2010 the Shanghai Museum of Art organised a retrospective retracing 30 years of his work. This past year, Zhou Chunya’s works have generated two new auction records, the highest of which was $6.7 million (19 June in Beijing). All creative periods combined, he is now one of the most sought-after artists in Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. He is also one of the most expensive artists on the Contemporary Chinese scene with a price index up 440% over the past decade.

Price volatility…

Zhou Chunya has caught up with the price levels reached by the famous Zhang Xiaogang at the beginning of this decade. Like Zeng Fanzhi, Yue Minjun and Liu Wei, Zhang Xiaogang is one of the artists who experienced an exceptional price surge before their markets melted down. In fact, their annual auction turnovers all collapsed following highly speculative phases (but not necessarily simultaneously). For example… Yue Minjun’s annual turnover dropped by $39 million between a peak in 2007 and the year 2013; that of Zeng Fanzhi lost 60 million between 2013 and 2015, while Zhang Xiaogang’s annual turnover was cut from $57.5 million in 2008 to less than $12 million in 2013. The turnover contraction saw prices tumble as well: two years ago a painting from Xiaogang’s famous Bloodline series depreciated by $4.5 million. Titled Bloodline: Big Family No.1, the work sold for $8.4 million in Hong Kong (Sotheby’s, 3 October 2011) before seeing its price revised to $4.9 million in New York (Sotheby’s, 11 May 2016). This year, however, a similar painting fetched $6.2 million in Beijing, an encouraging result after the negative volatility in the previous years.

Another strong trend in Chinese Contemporary creation is a return to the use of traditional ink techniques. Chinese collectors are paying big money for works by Qiu Hanqiao (100% Chinese market) who holds the 4th place in this Top 10. In Hangzhou in July 2017, one of his ink drawings set a new 7-digit record at $5.7 million. Indeed, the traditional styles are being carried by a wave of exceptionally strong domestic demand. The artist Ren Zhong, aged 42, also works in ink on paper or silk. His prices began to take off just as Zhang Xiaogang’s and Yue Minjun’s began to falter. Last April, the young artist crossed a significant threshold when one of his large ink rolls fetched a first 7-digit result at $2.7 million. 100% of his works sell in China.

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