Pablo Picasso has held onto the number one spot on Artprice's annual ranking of artists sorted by their auction prices for 13 out of the past 14 years. But the 2011 numbers have been crunched and the great man has been unseated. He didn’t lose to last year’s Western auction room darling Andy Warhol, but to two of the best modern Chinese artists most westerners have never heard of.
As ARTINFO China has been predicting since the beginning of China’s fall season last year, China’s modern masters stormed the 2011 top auction rankings, with Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) coming in at number one while Qi Baishi (1864-1957) claimed second place in Artprice’s survey. Warhol took third, with Picasso shunted into fourth. Zhang’s top spot was won on the back of the artist’s grand total of $506.7 million in 2011 auction sales. Qi Baishi's work earned $445.1 million, while Picasso took just $311.6 million.
Zhang and Qi’s 2011 win has been three years in the making. From the moment the global auction market’s center of gravity shifted east in the wake of 2008’s global financial crisis, the stocks of China’s modern masters have been rising. These artists — Qi, Zhang, Fu Baoshi, Xu Beihong, and Wang Guangzhong included — were painters active in the modern period who continued to utilize the techniques of traditional Chinese painting, but innovated in their concept and execution.
In the auction rooms of Beijing and Hong Kong over the past two years, a series of auction records have been broken as Mainland Chinese collectors breathed new life into a sector of the art market that had hitherto been the preserve of a dedicated (but much less cashed up) group of connoisseurs in the Chinese diaspora. A hint of what was coming was first seen at China Guardian's 2010 summer auctions when a beautiful 1968 study of the Austrian alps by Zhang Daqian was knocked down for RMB 100.8 million ($14.77 million), setting a new record for Chinese modern and contemporary painting at auction. In 2011 it was Qi Baishi’s time to make history when his "A Long Life, a Peaceful World" (1946) sold for RMB 425.5 million ($65 million) at China Guardian in May, setting a new world record for Chinese painting at auction.
In the end it was only the sheer volume of Zhang Daqian’s works coming to auction last year that secured him first place over Qi. Zhang was famously prolific and almost preternaturally talented, able to imitate any style and period of Chinese painting. His pleasure in copying the styles of the ancient masters gave him a reputation as a peerless forger, while at the same time his own innovative “splashed ink” style transformed modern Chinese painting.
Although the Chinese market will likely continue to slow during 2012, it is a safe bet that traditional Chinese modern painting is one sector of the market that will prove resilient. If so, we in the West will need to get a lot more familiar with the names like Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi.