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Zhang Daqian Lotus and Mandarin Ducks
Zhang Daqian, Lotus and Mandarin Ducks, 1947,
sold for $24.5 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong last year


Jan. 18, 2012

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Art-market analysts have been aflutter since news hit that two Chinese artists, Zhang Daqian and Qi Bashi, took over the top auction-earner spots last year -- beating out former titleholders Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. Zhang works brought in $506.7 million and Qi did $445.1 million, while Warhol earned $324.8 million and Picasso $311.6 million. In fifth place is another Chinese artist, Xu Beihong, who generated $212.9 million.

But what do the rankings mean? The Chinese art market has soared overall in recent years, accounting for 39 percent of the total $11 billion global art-revenue pie last year. Typically, the explosive growth in art collecting in China is attributed to the same kinds of things that propel the market in the West -- a new-found interest in cultural history, an increased sophistication and, of course, the quest for status.   

Over at Reuters, Felix Salmon claims we're "in a massive Chinese-art bubble." He calls the report “nothing short of astonishing,” noting that Qi’s Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree; Four-Character Couplet in Seal Script beat out the record-setting sale of the Clyfford Still painting at Sotheby's New York in May for $65.5 million, presumably to a Middle Eastern buyer.

But another explanation is possible as well. As the Telegraph reported last spring, "Performing Bribery in China," a research paper by Li Ling, a law lecturer at Northwest University in Xian, claims that the barely regulated Chinese auction houses have been used as forums for trading bribes, which can lead to inflationary prices. In one instance that came under legal scrutiny, a Chinese government official put two paintings on the block valued at about $475, yet a real-estate developer bought the low-value works for around $16,000.

This market-muddling process has been called “elegant bribery,” and can involve buyers who knowingly purchase fakes, tipping the auction houses with a little hush money in exchange for turning a blind eye. In variations on the bribery scheme, a valuable painting can be sold for a low price to an official, official, who can resell it later for a large profit, or a fake painting can be given as a gift and later sold to a shill buyer at the high price of an original.

The Telegraph story, which was written by Malcolm Moore from Shanghai, cites as additional evidence a "quasi-autobiographical bestseller" titled Celadon and written by Hu Gang, a former auctioneer who was jailed after being convicted of bribing three judges. In the book, the protagonist hires a tutor to teach calligraphy to a judge's son, and then auctions the scriptworks and has his friend buy the works, handing the judge an envelope full of cash. Though the book is fiction, Hu calls it an accurate reflection of real life.

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