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Philip Dodd: We are Beginning to Understand the Appetite for Contemporary Art in China

With the recent success the Gillian Ayles and John McLean exhibitions and Sean Scully’s auction results, it would seem that British abstract art is going from win to win. But the reality is that Western art in general, and especially abstract art has been struggling to find a footing in a market which is dominated by local artists. From the point of view of both the collector and the public, there is still a weak awareness of the traditions of abstract painting; as recently as the 1980s, western art books were deemed as “neibu ziliao” or contraband materials suitable only for the eyes of an elite group of government cadres. Given the reality that abstract art books, let alone paintings were and are still rare in China, it is unrealistic to expect both knowledge and interest in a form of art which still befuddles many Western museum goers.

A Yet-to-Emerge Market

This lack of exposure is reflected in the middling sales of abstract painting in the auction markets of Shanghai and Hong Kong. Recently in an article for the art investment portal Mutual Art, a representative for Phillips boasted about the “electric pace” of their “20th Century & Contemporary Art” sale where a Sean Scully painting sold for 150% of the estimate. Though the auction houses would like to mesmerise us with these exponential figures spinning before our eyes with the hypnotic power of Bridget Riley, the results themselves look much more Pollock than Mondrian. For every record breaking sale there are many lots under estimate or bought in, for instance in the aforementioned Phillips auction, a Rudolf Stingel selling for 12% above estimate, contrasted by a work by Ed Ruscha at 38% below estimate and works by Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer bought in.

The plain fact is that Chinese buyers are still largely interested in buying their own artists when it comes to abstract painting, and it will take a long time for the Qiu Deshu’s to replace the De Koonings in the Hong Kong and Mainland auctions. It’s really quite a struggle to get western artists, even blue chip ones up on the auction block says Ronald Kiwitt former business manager for Christie’s Shanghai, “A large part of the Chinese new collectors are hesitating and might not dare to approach foreign artists unless they have some consultant introducing them to them, explaining the importance of the work and guaranteeing a very good investment that is secure and might bring a profit in a few years. So we started to introduce a fine selection of Western contemporary artists of various price ranges to the Chinese market and received very different responses from clients and the media.”