New York’s mammoth art market has lost its longtime standing as the largest in the world.
In a turn of events that has caught many art experts off guard, China has snagged the top spot, beating out the United States—where New York is the art industry’s center—in terms of fine-art auction revenue, according to Artprice, an art market information service based in Paris.
Though China just became the second-largest economy in the world, after the U.S., its rapid rise as an art power has been astounding. It took just three years for China to jump from third place, previously occupied by France, to first place in 2010, with 33% of global fine-art sales stemming from auctions based there. The U.S. and the United Kingdom, the grand chieftains of the market since the 1950s, raked in 30% and 19% of the sales, respectively.
Four Chinese artists made it into the top 10 ranked by auction revenue for 2010, up from just one in 2009, with Qi Baishi, believed to be the most popular 20th century painter in China, coming in second after Andy Warhol. In addition, more than half of the global top 10 contemporary artists are Chinese, compared with just three Americans—the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons and Richard Prince, according to Thierry Ehrmann, chief executive of Artprice.
After downplaying the rise of the Chinese art market for many years, local dealers and auction houses are springing into action to capture a piece of the bounty. In the past few years, established New York-based galleries have started pursuing Chinese artists, with Marian Goodman signing Yang Fudong, David Zwirner signing Yan Pei-Ming; and Sperone Westwater snagging Liu Ye; to name a few. Mega-gallery Pace even opened an outpost in Beijing two years ago in the neighborhood equivalent to Chelsea.
Eli Klein (above and photographed by Buck Ennis), who opened his Chinese contemporary art gallery in New York in 2007 and a branch in Beijing last year, said he is astounded that he doesn’t have more company. Eli Klein Fine Art and one other, Chambers Fine Art, are the only two major Chinese art galleries in New York, according to Mr. Klein.
“The mainstream Western art culture has not accepted the boom in Chinese art and has overlooked it vastly,” Mr. Klein said.
Out of 274 galleries at The Armory Show, New York’s largest art fair, there were only two European galleries that focused on Chinese art, said Mr. Klein, who applied to exhibit in the fair himself but was rejected.
Mr. Klein is laughing all the way to the bank. Business was up a whopping 44% last year as hedge funders have started to tap into the Chinese art market. Demand has been so high that he has begun developing a contemporary Chinese art fund as an investment vehicle for a select group of private clients.
Mr. Klein’s current exhibition of painter Zhang Gong’s work, where prices range from $5,000 to $70,000, is three-quarters sold out after just three weeks, he reports. His other show, the New York premier of painter Wang Yang’s work, which goes for $3,200 to $12,800, is half sold out.