What Is the ‘Chinese Art Market’?

Art-market reports frequently discuss the ‘Chinese art market’; it’s a lot less clear what that actually means

Art Basel Hong Kong 2022. Courtesy Art Basel

A look back to art-market reports from 2019 can be a sentimental experience. Especially that year’s Artnet Intelligence Report – Welcome to the Age of the Art Industry (The Art World Is Over), which, riding a cheery wave of progress and bluster, declared that the incoming decade was going to witness a new ‘art industry’ in which artworks would be sold via apps, midnight texts and PDFs: new audience, new media. Unfortunately, thanks to the effects of the global pandemic, many of these predictions have been realised in a way neither the artworld, nor the art industry, or the wider world ever wanted.

Yet, with the way paved by the ArtPrice Report and Deloitte and ArtTactic’s Art & Finance Report in the early 2000s, market reports have become a part of the contemporary art landscape. And this has been accelerated in our information age thanks to revolutionary developments in statistics and data science. Although, it goes without saying in an artworld in which many transactions are opaque, and in which many of the organisations involved in creating these reports are interested in the market’s success, that any datasets and the conclusions derived from them are both partial and targeted. And yet, as much as they try to report the measure of value in art, they often create it as well.

Launched in 2017, the annual Art Basel & UBS Art Market Report has established itself as the most authoritative study of the art market, followed by the twice-yearly Artnet Intelligence Report, inaugurated a year later. Since 2013, Artnet has also co-published (in collaboration with the China Association of Auctioneers) a series of Global Chinese Art Auction Market Reports, although that went on hold in 2020.

These reports often revolve around three major hubs: the US – the perennial market leader – followed by the UK and China brawling for second place. However, while all these stylishly designed art-market reports talk about the ‘Chinese art market’, you might struggle to work out what and where that market actually is.

In the Artnet reports, data for ‘China’ includes results from both mainland China and Hong Kong. However, most of the examples presented and the people whose voices are included in the report are not from mainland China. In the Art Basel reports, the definition of ‘China’ is the same, but the term ‘Greater China’ was adopted for the sake of global sales comparisons to the US and the UK. According to the 2021 report, Greater China includes Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Breaking down the figures, mainland China dominated with a share of 71% of sales by value, with 28% in Hong Kong, and 1% in Taiwan. Meanwhile in the ArtPrice Contemporary Art Market Report, ‘China’ constituted 40% of the provenance of contemporary art auction-turnover in 2020/21, but only the Hong Kong market was actually discussed in the report itself.

Beyond the uncertainties about what geography is being covered, a further question arises with respect to what category of art each of these reports is tracking. Artnet’s Global Chinese Art Auction Market Report is the only one that has adopted a categorisation of the Chinese art market split between ‘Fine Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy’, ‘Antiques and Artworks’, ‘Books and Manuscripts’, ‘20th Century and Contemporary Art’ and ‘Others’. However that excludes international artworks sold in China. The Art Basel report categorises Chinese artworks as ‘Old Masters’ in the case of works by artists born between 1250 and 1821; ‘Impressionist and Postimpressionist’ for artists born between 1821 and 1874; ‘Modern’ for artists born between 1875 and 1910; ‘Postwar and Contemporary’ for artists born after 1910. The Artnet Intelligence Report excludes Chinese artists from the ‘Impressionist’, ‘Modern and Postwar’ categories, but adds ‘Contemporary’ to include artists born in any country between 1945 and 1974, and ‘Ultra-contemporary’ to cover artists born after 1974.

The year 1250 was a relatively peaceful year for China’s Southern Song Dynasty. While Europe was waiting for the Renaissance artists to be born, Southern Song artists were already mourning the unsurpassable ‘old masters’ of the previous dynasty. Similar problems can also be found in later periods of these classifications. If the purpose of the art-market reports’ inclusion of the Chinese market is to make that market more accessible to non-Chinese collectors and professionals, their ambiguous methodologies have already further segregated this traditionally obscure market from the rest of the world.

On the other hand, in the contemporary section, where there are fewer terminology issues, is it a coincidence that the so-called ‘Young Asian Collectors’ are being drawn into the market at the same time as they are surfing the age of Big Data? The Artnet Intelligence Report quotes Sotheby’s International Chairman Patti Wong refuting that ‘Asians rely on data’, which is a generalising, stereotyped portrait – like saying Asians are ‘good at maths’. However, for some collectors and investors (not just those from Asia), perhaps the truth is that they’re buying brand names and market performance rather than the works in and of themselves, and that, in this way, market reports provide them with a shortcut to what they require.

And maybe it’s true that, as Artnet predicted in 2019, the ‘artworld’ will be never be the same again. Many artists in China are still in indefinite lockdown, worrying more about getting groceries than the art industry. And we will only know the outcomes of China’s current detachment from the rest of the world as they unfold. But if the Chinese art-market is indeed an important subject rather than just a contradistinction to validate the Western market, then, if they are to ‘mean’ anything, art-market reports need to provide so much more than raw data.

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