Falling leaves, rising prices

In the last two years the Chinese art market has been an enigma, too hard for even the professionals to understand. Prices are getting higher and higher, and it seems that nothing can stop the trend.

As this year's autumn sales are drawing to an end, art collectors, dealers and economists have all been stunned by a number of new record-breaking sales. Last year's records have been toppled, and there seems to be no ceiling to prices.

"I don't guess prices," is the answer once-confident experts give when asked to speculate before a sale.
They don't dare guess, because they have no idea how high prices might go in a market as hot as the Chinese one.

"It is totally crazy," said Zhang Liguo, an expert from the China Academy of Art. "No one knows what's happening, and what would happen next."

Records shattered

Prices that shocked last year have become normal this autumn.

A millennium-old replica of Jin Dynasty (265-420) calligraphy master Wang Xizhi's work, Safe Placard, was sold for over 300 million yuan ($45 million) last month at China Guardian, one of the domestic auction giants.

Few of Wang's works have survived, and imitations from the later Tang (618-907) or Song (960-1279) dynasties are valuable in their own right.

Wednesday night witnessed another record broken: a 1938 painting by Xu Beihong (1895-1953), was sold for 171 million yuan ($26 million) at the Beijing Hanhai, another Chinese auction house. This was a new record for modern Chinese paintings.

The previous record only lasted a few days, as the work The Long March by Li Keran (1907-1989), was sold for 1.07 million yuan ($16 million) at China Guardian on December 3, which broke last year's record for a painting by Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) at the spring auctions this year.

"There are too many records being broken too fast," said Zhao Li, professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. "I can't find any other word but 'crazy' to depict Chinese art market in recent years."

Behind the scenes

"As long as you have good pieces by famous artists, or rare antiques, you'd never worry about how high a prices could fetch," a staff member at Hanhai told the Global Times, saying that after two years' of sharp rise in prices, all auctions houses workers and collectors know this maxim.

The wars between the several domestic auction giants are on even before the sales start. The competition now is for sellers, not buyers.

Dong Guoqiang, president of Beijing Council, another auction house, said that they've already started their preparations for the spring sales next year, just several days after finishing the autumn sales.

The worldwide journey to find works has started, Dong said. The US, European countries and Southeast Asia are all targets, as countless precious Chinese works are kept in the hands of individual collectors there
"There is a huge demand for precious works in the domestic art market, especially those items returned from overseas," Dong said.

"For us, the next round of battle begins as soon as the auctions finished," he added.

Status symbols

Modern collectors are often motivated by a desire to show off their wealth more than a love of art.

"There are too many people who see buying art as a form of investment," Zhang told the Global Times. "It is undoubtedly good to see more people getting involved in appreciating art, but it can also be harmful in building a healthy, sound art market."

For collectors who love art, such a hot market is definitely a disaster. For the really enthusiastic collectors who keep buying but never sell, there is little chance to get what they want at auctions.

"Prices are too expensive for me," a collector surnamed Wang said. "Like me, many other rivals frequently raised their pads desperately during the auction process, but deep in our hearts we know that we would never be able to get it in the end.

"Someone else always gets it, at a price you could never imagine," Wang added. "What I can imagine is I'm definitely not wealthy enough to win."