economies and a burgeoning middle class it is no surprise that the Chinese are madly spending huge amounts of money on antiques and fine art – prime symbols of wealth for the status obsessed Chinese. It is also no surprise that the emergence of Chinese buyers as a dominant force at auctions of both Western and Chinese antiques and fine art has sparked a plethora of reports and predictions that China is on the way to becoming the centre of the global art market. This would be an interesting and perhaps even positive development for the global art market if it weren’t for that fact that serious cracks are already beginning to appear in what one could be forgiven for thinking is an Eastern based art market renaissance.
What concerns me most about the Chinese art market is the fact that the Chinese are not only showing a keen interest in the work of modern master “trophy” artists, just as the Japanese did, but unlike the Japanese are also showing a keen interest in the work of their own young contemporary artists. The first reason that this is concerning is the obvious issue of inflated pricing that arises when uneducated and indiscriminate buying of “trophy” works takes place – especially when the reasons for purchases are related to status, vanity and games of one-upmanship. The second reason that this is concerning is that China does not have the sort of private gallery infrastructure in place that is needed to support young contemporary artists and nurture their careers over the long term. Without the private gallery step in the process of natural progression, young artists end up being thrust into the limelight ill-prepared and without having been through that crucial process of critical review that the private gallery system is a major part of. It is that private gallery system that would usually separate the true stars from the posers and direct the marketplace towards the true stars. Artist’s whose work is taken directly from the art school to the auction house are essentially being thrust into a position of authority and responsibility without the proper credentials. This is fine while the going is good but as soon as the money runs out and these artists are asked to prove their worth the whole foundation that their career has been built on comes tumbling down.
As I have mentioned many times before, the long term value of an artist’s work depends on the level of support and patronage that they receive from the cultural and private gallery sectors. It is pretty much inevitable that the super-heated Chinese art market will begin to cool at some point in the near future which means that buyers will have to begin to justify their purchases and the amount of money they are spending on fine art. If an artist has not been through the traditional route of progression, and does not have the support of a strong private gallery sector, it is unlikely that