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WSJ_Art's New Peking Order

WSJ_Art's New Peking Order

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Published by: artvest on Jan 18, 2012
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01/18/2012

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OntheoutskirtsofBeijinginaprivateclubhousecalledParadise,thereisalarge,windowlessroomwhereYangBindisplayshiscollectionofmodernandcontemporaryart."Sitdownandgetready,"Mr.YangrecentlytoldafewfriendsvisitingfromTaiwan.Grabbingaremotecontrol,heturnedtoasetofwallpanelsthat,withaclick,begantoslideapart.Eachpanelrevealedafewofhisrecentacquisitions,fromChairmanMao-eraportraitsofrevolutionariestobrightlycoloredabstractsbyChina'srisingstars.Ashisfriendsapplaudedtheslide-show,Mr.Yanggrinnedandlitacigar.TheartmarketisbeingtransformedbyChinesecollectorswillingtopaytopdollarforeverythingfromMingvasestocontemporaryChineseabstracts.Insomecases,theseworksareoutstrippingpricespaidforblue-chipWesternartistslikeRenéMagritteandClyffordStill.Threeofthe10mostexpensiveartworkssoldatauctionlastyearwerebyChineseartists,accordingtoart-marketanalystArtprice.Lastyear'spriciestpainting:"EagleStandingonPineTree"(1946)byself-taughtpainterQiBaishi.ThisdelicatescrollrocketedaheadofcolorfulcanvasesbyPabloPicasso,RoyLichtensteinandAndyWarholwhenitsoldfor$65millionatauctionhouseChinaGuardianinMay.Overall,purchasesbyChinesecollectorsaccountedforroughlyafifthofChristie'sglobalsalesduringthefirsthalfoflastyear;Sotheby'ssaysmainlandbuyersalsolifteditssalesinAsiatonearly$960millionlastyear,up47%from2010.WelcometoChina'srollickingartworld,amarketplaceflushwithwealthyentrepreneurswhoareamassingartatacliptorivalanyRussianoligarch.FromBeijingtoChongqing,collectorsarebuildingprivatemuseums,openinggalleriesandembracinganexuberantartscene,evenasChina'seconomyshowsearlysignsofaslowdownandmanycollectorselsewherearebuyingmorecautiously.Mr.Yang,age54andoneofBeijing'sbiggestcardealers,isemblematicofthenewwaveofChinesecollectors:Overthepastdecade,hehascollectednearly1,000artworksbycontemporaryheavyweightslikeChenYifei,whopaintswomeninromanticinteriors,andZhangXiaogang,knownforhauntingfamilyportraits.Mr.Yang'sartchoicesarecloselytrackedbytheregion'stopcollectorsanddealers.HehasfinancedtheopeningofapairofedgyartgalleriesinBeijing,oneofwhichismanagedbyhiswife,YanQing.LastyearhebeganimportingandresellingcollectiblewineslikeBordeaux.(Hekeepsmostofhisown30,000-bottlecollectionstoredinacellaroutsidetown.)ThecollectorsinhisbroadercircleincludeQiaoZhibing,anightclubownerbasedinShanghai.Mr.Qiaoisoutfittinghisfour-storykaraokebar,ShanghaiNight,withconceptualsculpturesbyAiWeiwei,sleekphotographsofChampagne-drinkingpartygoersbyYangFudongandpaintingsofmeninsuitsandsmilingfacemasksbyZengFanzhi.BehindMr.Qiao'scashier'sdeskloomsBeijingartistJiDachun'slargepaintingofaneyeball.Anotherfriend,BeijinghotelierZhangRui,hasstarteddecoratingeveryroominhisnewGalleryHotelwithpiecesborrowedfromagallerycalledTang.Healsohasan800-piececollectionofhisown.Thehotelhasn'topenedyet,inpartbecauseMr.Zhangrecentlyspent18monthsindetentionforallegedlybribingaPartysecretary.Mr.ZhangdeniesmakinganybribebutsayshedidpayafineasaconditionofhisreleaselastJune,andhe'snowseekingtheremainingbuildingpermits.
 
"It'snotenoughinChinatobewildlywealthy,"saysMegMaggio,directorofPékinFineArts,aBeijinggalleryspecializingincontemporaryart."Foralltheseguys,it'saboutbuildingabeautifulwayoflife—theywanttheniceobjects,thegoodwine,thewholepackage."AlanLee,whorunsBeijinggalleryAsiaArtCenter,saysoneofhisclients,afitness-equipmentmanufacturernamedChangChiuDun,callshimselfthe"CoverKiller"becausehe"likestobuyartworksthathavebeenonthecoversofauctioncatalogs."Thedownside,Mr.Leesays,isthatthisinfluxofnewlywealthycollectorsisfuelingriskyspeculationonart,leadingtopriceswingsandheavytradingvolumesforyoungerartistsliketheeyeballpainter,JiDachun,whoselastingsignificanceisstilluncertain.ArtadvisoryfirmArtvestsaysChineseinvestorshaverecentlystartedatleasteightartfunds,whichbuyartworkswiththeaimofresellingthemataprofitlater.Thereareonlyabout20similarfundselsewhereintheworld.China'sgallerysceneissimilarlyfreewheeling,withcollectorssuchasMr.Yangsometimesservingasstakeholdersorco-ownersofgallerieswheretheyalsoshop.Sucharrangementscansparkpotentialconflictsofinterestbecausethestakeholdersmightbeabletoleveragetheirpositiontoclaimthegallery'schoicestpieces.SevenyearsagoMr.Yangpaidtohelphiswifeopenhercontemporaryartgallery,Aye,buthesayshedoesn'tmanageherartistsorgetfirstdibsonanyworksheshowsthere.Herecentlysteppedbackasafinancingpartnerinanothercontemporaryartgalleryhefoundedthreeyearsago,Eastation,inordertofocusonhiswineventure.Hecontinuestobuyartfrombothgalleries.Dealersandartistssayit'sunclearwhetherMr.Yangistryingtobuildamuseum-worthycollectionoranglingfortherightmomenttocashout."China'smarketisstillsonew—it'shardforustotellwho'sacollectorandwho'saspeculator,"saysartistZhangXiaogang.Mr.Yangisn'ttroubledbysuchambiguity."Ican'tsayifinvestinginartisgoodorbad,"hesays,"butIknowthatwithoutmoney,youcan'tmakeamarketgrow."WithinChina'scontemporaryartcircles,Mr.Yangishardtomiss.He'stall,withasquarefaceandthickheadofblackhair.Heshowsacquaintancescellphoneimagesofhisartthewayotherspullupsnapshotsoftheirchildren.Moreoftenthannot,heturnsupatblack-tiedinnersdressedinapoloshirt,blackcorduroys,andsneakers.InHongKong,hesocializeswithcollectorslikeCreditSuissebankerTonyChiuandBNPParibasbankerDaisyCheng.Bothsaythey'vesoughthisadviceaboutartiststocollect.InBeijing,hispenthouseapartmentdoublesasalunchspotforagrowingcropofyoungentrepreneursandinvestmentbankers,someofwhomhalf-jokinglycallhim"PresidentYang."Mr.Yanghasrapidlybuiltuphiscollectioninpartbymaintainingabreathlesspace—hesometimesbuysdozensofworksatasingleauctionorhundredsofworksfromagalleryorartisthelikes,hesays.Whenhe'snotworkinginoneofhissixcardealershipsinBeijing,heandhisentourageareregularsatartfairsandauctionsthroughoutAsiaandEurope.Thisyear,Mr.Yang'sfavoriteprospectisLiuWei,aBeijingartistwhogrewuppaintingportraitsofChairmanMaoandlaterexperimentedwithabstractionandthemeslikedecay.Twomonthsago,Mr.YangflewtoHongKongandpaidboutiqueauctioneerRavenelaround$123,000forMr.Liu's1999canineportrait,"DogNo.2."Afewdayslater,severalworksbythesameartistsoldfortwiceasmuchatanauctionbackinBeijing.Mr.Yangsaystheartistremainsundervalued:"LiuWeiisn'tapopstar"likeZengFanzhi,apainterrepresentedbyNewYorkdealerLarryGagosian,hesays,"butIthinkhe'sasimportant."Mr.YanghasalsostartedoffloadingafewolderpiecesbyChineserealistartistslikeChenYanningasdemandfortheirworkshasclimbed.Lastmonth,Mr.YangarrivedataBeijingluxuryhotelandmadehiswayintothepackedsalesroomofPoly,China'sbiggestauctionhouse.Hestoodintheback,hisusualspot.Halfwaythroughthesale,hepointedtoalargepaintingofaboatfulofpeoplehangingonthefarwall."That'smine,"hesaid.Hehadpaidroughly$60,000
 
forthe1984work,"NewWave,"byChenYanningsevenyearsearlier,andwasreadytosell.Polypricedtheworktosellforatleast$629,000.Whenthebiddingbegan,atleastfivecollectorstookthebaitandthewinnerpaid$1million,anewpricerecordfortheartist.Minutesbeforethebiddingbegan,Mr.Yangslippeddownstairssohecouldsmokewhilewatchingalivebroadcastofthesaleonatelevisioninthehotelbar.Afterthegavelfell,heslappedtheshoulderofthemanbesidehimandlaughed.Later,heheardthatthewinnerwasa"coalboss"fromShanxiprovince.Atthesamesale,Mr.Yangdidsomepotentiallystrategicbiddingofhisown—onanartistrepresentedbyhiswife'sAyeGallery.Mr.YangenlistedatallerfriendtostandinfrontofhimandbidforoneofChenWenji'sphotorealisticpaintingsfrom1990,"APieceofGlassLeaningonWall."Mr.Yangandhisfriendbowedoutafterotherbidderspushedthepricetomorethandoublethework's$125,800highestimate.Itultimatelysoldtoatelephonebidderfor$361,663,theartist'ssecond-highestauctionprice.Twodayslater,"What,"ashowofMr.Chen'snewworks,openedatAye.Mr.YangsayshebidontheworkinpartbecauseearlyworksbyMr.Chenarerare,andhedoesn'townany,despitehiswife'saffiliationwiththeartistnow.Inaddition,ifhecouldhelphiswife'sgalleryby"keepingpricesinareasonablerange,thiswouldbegoodfortheartist,"hesays.Ms.Maggio,theBeijingdealer,saysshedoesn'tthinkMr.Yangfollowsanypatternintendedtoboosthisworks'values.Moreoften,shesays,heseemstobidonawhim,cajolinghisfriendstojoininandrevelinginthecompetition."He'llnudgesomeguywithhimandsay,'Buyit!Youjustmadealotofmoney!'andthey'llputuptheirpaddles,"shesays."It'sdoneinaspiritoffun—it'snotcalculated."ThegrandsonofaShandongfarmerandthesonofaBeijingfactoryworker,Mr.YanggrewupinBeijingduringtheCulturalRevolution.In1978,hejoinedoneofthefirstwavesofstudentsallowedintothecountry'sreopenedcolleges.Hestudiedpoliticaleconomics.Aftercollege,hegotajobattheMinistryofMachinery,whereheformedtieswithforeignbanksandcarmanufacturerssohecouldhelpthegovernmentimportcarsforstateuse.There,hemethiswife,whoworkedasamachinerydesignerinanofficedowntheblockfromhiscommunaldorm;theymarriedin1988.Whenthegovernmentbeganallowingindividualstostarttheirowncompaniesafewyearslater,thecoupleleveragedtheircontactsandwonacontractwithGeneralMotorstosellBuicks,ChevroletsandCadillacsinChina.In1999,theyopenedShanghai'sfirstGMdealership,DaShiHangAuto.Inthefirstyearalone,theysold1,000Buicks.Ms.Yanbeganorganizingregionalautoshows,andthecoupleboughtabigemptyhouseinShanghai."That'swhenwerealizedweneededsomethingforthewalls,"saysMr.Yang,whosoldaround11,000carslastyearthroughhissevenshowroomsinShanghaiandBeijing.HedrivesablackCadillacEscalade.In2000,hepaidalocalgalleryaround$120,000tofilltheirhomewithsuitablepaintings,butovertimehegrewcuriousabouttheartiststhemselves.Ayearortwolater,hespottedaroughly$84,000paintingofastarklylithumanfigurebycontemporaryartistShiChong,andsomethingclicked:Hewantedtoownartworksthatfeltnew.By2004,heandMs.YanhadmovedbacktoBeijingandhiscompulsionhadreachedapointwherehedecidedtosellhisnewerToyotafranchisesohecouldusethecashtobuyart.Withinweeksofclosingthatdeal,hehadspenttheentire$3.6millioninprofitsbuyingart."Whenweseesomethingwelike,wecan'thelpourselves,"saidMs.Yan.LastmonthinBeijing,Mr.Yangthrewawine-tastingdinnerformorethan100guestsathisfriendMr.Rui'snewhotel.Artworksweretuckedintonichesthroughoutthehotel'swhitelobby—includinganAnne-Julievideoofahorsewalkingonatreadmill—andtheupperhallwaysweredottedwithshowstoppersliketheYangjiangGroup'sdrippycandlewaxtree.Youngmenandwomenclusteredaroundtherestaurant'stables,diningonlambchopsandvigorouslyswirlingglassesofChâteauBeau-SéjourBécot.Mr.Yang'slatestpastimeisfinewine.Hetrieditforthefirsttimeshortlyafterheopenedhisfirstcardealership,andhenowdrinksaglassortwoeveryday.Hekeepshisbest2,000

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