Home Magazine The recent history of the Chinese Contemporary Art Market

Contemporary art is, in essence, an attractive market. Collectors have proliferated, particularly in Asia, but the number of buyers has been disproportionately inflated by pure investors.

The renewal of the artistic offer and the global demand have not only transformed but also imposed the Asia zone as essential on the contemporary art market. The 2009 results are a proof of this: in 2009, out of the top 10 auction houses for contemporary art in the world, five were Asian. The first million-dollar auction of Chinese contemporary art was recorded in 2005 and sales will dramatically increase in 2007, a historic year for the world art market as China imposes its strike force on the rest of the world by reaching the third place in the world market for art auction sales, overtaking France’s primacy. 

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In just a few years, the Chinese art market has positioned itself first on the global scene after fifty years of undisputed domination of the European and US markets. China, however, in just three years has risen from third place to the top of the rankings, relegating France to fourth place and overtaking New York and London that, until recently, were considered unattainable. The decline of the western markets and the rapid growth of the oriental ones has thus reconfigured the global scenario of the auctioning world with China which, with 3 billion dollars in revenues in 2010, in 2012 represented 33% of market share, followed by the United States (30%), from the United Kingdom (19%) and France (5%). Don't miss the latest news about The SB2019 (Singapore Biennale 2019)!


Venice Biennale 2011, China Pavilion, Pervasion, detail of the installation Courtesy Valentina Grandini
Venice Biennale 2011, China Pavilion, Pervasion, detail of the installation Courtesy Valentina Grandini


The participation of China at the 54th Venice Biennale was already very meaningful in defining the relationship between the Asian country and contemporary art. But this relationship, which is always more and more willing to welcome contemporary art and create opportunities for dialogue with it, is also controversial. Indeed, there are cases of censorship towards contemporary art. A sort of censorship that, with silence, tries to make people forget what happens in the country: from the case of Ai Weiwei - whose studio was demolished after the arrest - to the closing of the exhibitions of non-aligned artists, until the eviction of the artistic colony of "Weihai Road 696" in Shanghai. 

However, the economic growth started in 2009-10 has not remained stable over the years. In fact, the art market in China continued to struggle after peaking in 2011. Between 2011 and 2015 the decline was 41%. In particular, the Chinese art market has developed in two different ways inside and outside China. 

In fact, in China, the contraction began in 2012 after the three-year boom of 2009-2011 following the slowdown in the growth of the Chinese economy. In that year, the value of auctioning within China fell by 46% from 9.3 to 4.9 billion dollars. Abroad, however, the Chinese art market has followed another evolution: even after the three-year growth period 2009-2011, which had recorded a + 278% up to 2.1 billion, the positive trend continued until it reached 2.6 billion dollars in 2015. 

But sales of Contemporary Art have returned to a growth path. For two consecutive years, the segment’s total turnover contracted until the second half of 2016 when it lost -10%. After this healthy correction, the return to growth became apparent in the first half of 2017 with a +14% growth in global auction turnover signalling a new period of prosperity.


David Zwirner flanked by Jennifer Yum and Leo Xu, heads of his new Hong Kong gallery. Photo courtesy of David Zwirner
David Zwirner flanked by Jennifer Yum and Leo Xu, heads of his new Hong Kong gallery. Courtesy by David Zwirner



In the last years, many galleries have opted for settling in the East. Galleries are not only looking to import their own artists to cities like Shanghai and Beijing, but also to scout major local talents. Some have begun to look beyond financial hubs like Hong Kong to expand into less saturated markets like Seoul. Some examples of major galleries and auction houses’ initiatives in Asia are Christie’s, Phillips, Sotheby’s, Axel Vervoordt, Ben Brown Fine Arts, Blum & Poe, David Zwirner, Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, Lehmann Maupin, Massimo De Carlo, Pace, Simon Lee, White Cube


The market for Southeast Asian artists is growing rapidly and shows immense potential. Within the worldwide top 500 artists, 32% are Chinese artists, 19% American artists and 8% British. Many of these artists have established careers and long sale histories within their own countries but, until recently, their market has been very regional. Thanks to Biennales, art fairs and international exhibitions, they’re becoming more accessible to collectors across the world.  


The expansion of the Chinese contemporary art market is witnessed by the growing number of Chinese auction houses, among the world's leaders, and the creation of ever-new events linked to art.  An example of a leading auction house is Poly Auction Hong Kong. Alex Chang, Poly Auction Hong Kong CEO, explains:

Hong Kong is positioned at the crossroads of the East and the West since the city has a structure comparable to that of the western markets and at the same time benefits from the growth of the Asian market. The study of sales results over the last few seasons clearly reveals a new trend, with the enthusiasm of Asian collectors for Western works. In particular, Chinese collectors are no longer exclusively interested in Asian works, but are oriented towards other horizons.


Anren Biennale 2017. Adam Avikainen, Kaki Kuchi, 2015-ongoing, mixed media, installation view. Courtesy the artist. Photograph Lu Zhiqiang
Anren Biennale 2017. Adam Avikainen, Kaki Kuchi, 2015-ongoing, mixed media, installation view. Courtesy the artist. Photograph Lu Zhiqiang


Another significant example of the growth of the Chinese market is given by the establishment of the Anren Biennal. The Anren Biennal demonstrates how China is trying to expand the market for Contemporary Art away from the big centres and in more isolated areas. The first edition of the Anren Biennial was held from October 28, 2017, to February 28, 2018. The Anren Biennial was funded by the real estate agency OCT, which is an important supporter of contemporary art and has already opened numerous exhibition spaces. 

Lu Peng, one of the most important Chinese art historians, states:

I can say that the Biennial, despite being an artistic event, is a substantial part of the urban development plan planned for Anren, so I think that there will be other new buildings in the neighbouring area. From this point of view, the biennials in China also serve the market and the businesses. 


Although there are not many inhabitants in Anren, the number of visitors has exceeded forecasts, around 500-800 visitors each day, and over 1000 during the weekend. Long lines at the gates, visitors coming from all over China; these are the effects of a project rooted in the territory.


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