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Chinese buyers thin on the ground at first Shanghai art fair: ShContemporary in review

Nevertheless, dealers predict this will change as excitement surrounds international event

Asia’s first truly international contemporary art fair, ShContemporary, held in the Shanghai Exhibition Centre (5-8 September), was described by dealers who attended as the best ever event on the continent, although they acknowledged that the competition was thin. One hundred galleries took part and around 39,500 visitors attended the event.

The aim of the fair, organised by ex-Art Basel director Lorenzo Rudolf, the Swiss gallerist Pierre Huber and the Italian fair organiser BolognaFiere, was to give western galleries access to the potentially lucrative Asian market, as well as providing a platform for Asian artists to become better known. About 50 of the exhibitors were Asian (26 were from China), 12 from the US and only two from Britain. France has established a significant presence in Shanghai (although plans for a Centre Pompidou in the city have stalled, see p15); and there were 11 French dealers and a large number of French visitors, but few Americans.

The Shanghai Exhibition Centre is a vast Sino-Soviet “friendship” palace, a 1955 gift from Russia to China, and its startlingly grand decor of gilded chandeliers, elaborate mouldings and sumptuous inlaid stone flooring proved a good showcase for the art on offer. This included a $16.8m painting by Lucian Freud (David and Elie, 2004, with Jens Faurschou), a $7m Basquiat/Warhol (Olympic Greens, 1985, with Enrico Navarra) a few works by Damien Hirst, swathes of paintings by fashionable Chinese artists—Zhang Xiaogang, Feng Zhengjie and Yue Minjun—as well as works by Japanese, Indian and southeast Asian artists, both established and emerging.

In the “best of artists” section, Gu Dexin installed a vast field of apples being crushed by a steamroller (Continua Gallery, San Gimignano/Beijing), and Jitish Kallat created a skeleton cab (Autosaurus Tripos, 2007, with Mumbai gallery Chemould Prescott Road, $125,000, sold).

China, with its current growth rate of over 10% of GDP, is the new “gold rush” for western art dealers, and many have opened galleries there or are hunting for spaces. Larry Gagosian is said to be looking for an appropriate venue; the Copenhagen gallerist Jens Faurschou is opening a gallery in China shortly and the German dealer Michael Schultz decided during the Shanghai fair to do the same.

The fair attracted visitors from Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan, and indeed the position of Shanghai as a hub for the region was one of its main attractions. But a punitive 34% import tax hits any mainland buyer of imported art, and there are still few Chinese collectors of contemporary western art. A Taiwanese collector bought two pieces from James Cohan; a 1994 Nam June Paik ($450,000) and Bill Viola’s Becoming Light, 2005 ($260,000).

“The fair was enormously successful on a number of levels. The primary buyers were Taiwanese and Korean, but I met terrific people from Shanghai and Beijing, Singapore and Hong Kong,” said Arthur Solway, director of Cohan’s. “However, people have to get to know you, to know that what you are selling is right, that its value is right,” he added.

Michael Hue-Williams of Albion, one of two British galleries taking part, said: “We did pretty well. About 80% of our sales were to peripheral areas—Korea, Taiwan, Singapore. We sold Hu Bing’s triptych Song of Myself, 2007, for $225,000: it attracted huge interest—we had 50 serious enquiries. But it was not what we expected: no mainland Chinese bought any art.”

Work by Chinese artists on display with other dealers sold well. Jean Bernier, the French director of the Greek gallery Bernier/Eliades, says he immediately found a Chinese buyer for a 1999 double portrait of Mao by Yan Pei Ming (price undisclosed). But “the Chinese are only interested in their own artists, they aren’t even curious about the others,” he said.

Controversially, the fair organisers admitted four auction houses as sponsors and exhibitors. In the case of France’s Artcurial, this was in preparation for its new saleroom in Shanghai opening in January. It displayed Monet’s Iris Jaunes, 1924-25, (est $1.3m-$2m), which will be the highlight of its first sale.

Fair organiser Lorenzo Rudolf explained: “Here in China, auction houses are dominant. We are here to show collectors a gallery market as well, so we decided to bring in the auction houses so that they would invite their clients”.

Another issue was government censorship. While today’s China is resolutely commercial—a Gucci sign dominated the façade of the building—there are controls. Exhibitors had to submit digital images of all the art they intended to bring in July. Some were rejected, among them a large Damien Hirst sculpture showing a pregnant woman with part of her internal organs revealed, Virgin Exposed, 2005 (Max Lang Gallery, see p61). Other pieces were rejected once they arrived, and Continua exhibited the sealed shipping crate of Kendell Geers’s Losing My Religion 23, 2007, containing a banned painted Buddha. Art magazines at the fair had also been censored. A further problem was the cost of shipping within China, and a number of dealers said this needed to be addressed urgently.

Not everyone sold well, but the overall impression was encouraging. “This is a growing market, and exhibiting here is an investment in the future,” said Mr Rudolf. “Overall we think the fair was off to an excellent start and is poised to become a major venue in the future. We also feel that it is only a matter of time until people from China get into the market as well,” added dealer Max Lang.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Chinese buyers thin on the ground at first Shanghai art fair'