Was that the sound of the China art bubble bursting?


As quickly as it appeared, the Chinese contemporary art boom ended last week in Hong Kong.

“There’s been a downward readjustment of prices,” explained Jonathan Stone, business director for Asian art at auction house Christie’s at the conclusion of his company’s Asian Contemporary evening sale on Nov. 30.

Just around 55 percent of the lots were sold during that sale and the day sale held Dec. 1, compared with 95 percent and 96 percent sold at the spring and autumn auctions held last year. A large painting by Yue Minjun — the so-called “crazy laughing man” artist — which Christie’s had listed as a highlight of the evening, was “passed in” for a paltry HK$6 million (nearly ¥72 million), meaning that the bids received did not reach the “reserve price” at which the seller was prepared to part with the work. Just six months ago, a similar work had gone for HK$54 million (¥646 million), and in both the spring and autumn Christie’s sales last year, works by the same artist achieved over HK$20 million (¥238 million).

That other icon of the Chinese art boom, the “figures in masks” artist Zeng Fanzhi, fared little better. His “From the Masses, To the Masses” was passed in at HK$28 million (¥335 million). The owner was no doubt expecting the work to get a little closer to the HK$75 million (nearly ¥900 million) that a slightly larger work achieved in May this year.

Everyone had a theory as to why things had gone bust, though most revolved around the ripple effect of the subprime loan problem and credit crunch.

“It’s the economy. What can you expect in times like this,” asked one Taiwanese buyer, who declined to give his name.

Others were more precise in their assessments: “The Korean collectors have disappeared from the market,” observed a Japanese dealer.

Still others thought the reasons lay elsewhere. “Everyone is sick of Chinese art now,” said a Hong Kong collector. “They’re looking for something new.”

Which, it turns out, includes things that are old: His theory was in part born out by the Christie’s wine and jewelry auctions, both of which posted record prices. The Finest & Rarest Wines Including Historic Vintages from the Cellars of Cha^teau Latour sale, held the day before the contemporary art sale, was 94 percent sold by lot, raising more than HK$31 million (¥370 million).

That Asian collectors are looking for something new was also evidenced by how their attention had turned to Japan. The same Hong Kong collector noted that the 104 works of Japanese art on sale at the Christie’s day sale were “many more than we usually get here. It’s a good chance to buy Japanese art.”

Sixty-six percent of the works by Japanese artists were sold during that sale, compared with 52 percent of Chinese artists’ works and 40 percent of Korean.

The strongest performing Japanese was Tetsuya Ishida, whose “Untitled” went for HK$2.9 million (¥34.5 million) — below, but in the vicinity of, his auction record of HK$5.4 million (¥64.4 million). Ishida died at 31 in 2005.

Another who fared well was Hiroyuki Matsuura. One of the few times the auction room took on a real buzz — with three or four bidders competing in the room — was for his “Kingyo-hime,” which eventually went for HK$680,000 (¥8.1 million), more than double its high estimate. Matsuura is also included in an exhibition of contemporary Japanese art, “Wonderland,” at the Hong Kong commercial gallery Opera Gallery, in which a promising 70 percent of exhibits have been sold.

That is not to say that the Japanese artists were the only ones achieving good results. Several Chinese artists, including Zang Xiaogang and Cai Guoqiang achieved figures respectable enough to prompt Stone at Christie’s to remind reporters that the overall decreases in prices “must be looked at in the context of some very strong prices for individual artists.”

Still, the overall sluggishness that wracked not just the Christie’s auction but similar sales held this season throughout Asia, combined with the dramatic reductions in prices bid for several of the long-heralded stars of the Chinese art world, suggest that China’s art bubble has burst. Perhaps Yue Minjun and his collectors will now have to settle for hammers in the low millions of Hong Kong dollars in the future.

Which might not be a bad thing — that would, after all, bring his prices into line with those of his contemporaries overseas, such as Belgian Luc Tuymans, American Lisa Yuskavage and Japanese Takashi Murakami.