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Chinese art — not a bust

Beijing artists and gallery owners say the economic downturn will improve quality.

BEIJING — Fabien Fryns, who runs the F2 gallery in Caochangdi village on the outskirts of Beijing, does not look like a man who is worried about the financial crisis.

“The middle has dropped out of the market,” said Fryns, discretely smoking a cigar in the gallery’s voluminous interior garden, “but the top and the bottom are both strong.”

What is "the middle"? Pieces from $30,000 to $500,000, according to Fryns.

Compared to the stock market, or nearly any other place one can put one’s money these days, Chinese contemporary art still looks like a very good investment. Recent art auctions in Hong Kong have registered sales at the high end of their estimates, even though the targets the auction houses are setting for themselves are less ambitious today than previous years.

The owners of some of the best Beijing galleries said the shakeout promises to be a positive development for dealers, but also for artists. No one likes a bubble and there was growing concern that easy riches were destroying creativity by encouraging Chinese artists to go after major sales, rather than the real thing.

Li Xianting, the former editor of the magazine China Fine Arts who is considered the spiritual father of the contemporary art movement, said media hype transformed many artists into “money celebrities” and produced a twisted form of art.

Pan Xing Lei, a sculptor and painter who recently returned to Beijing from New York, said the financial crisis would weed out less serious artists.

“The artists who are serious can take this time to reflect and to develop their ideas,” he said. “The others will go back to their villages, or do something else.”

The craze over contemporary Chinese art began to trigger serious waves on the international art scene in 2005, after the auction house Sotheby’s established an Asian contemporary art department and began buying up works. Many of the artists were reacting to the Tiananmen Square massacre and grappling with the wrenching changes in Chinese society, a fact that made them especially interesting as an emerging China began to make its influence felt in other domains.

“The relationship was becoming difficult because many of the artists were spoiled,” Fryns said. “The scene in the last few years was crazy. You were given an hour to decide if you wanted to buy a piece.”

In March 2006, an auction that was expected to bring in $6 million raised $13 million. In 2007, a single painting, “Executioner,” by Yue Minjun, famous for his cynical-realist political pop caricatures of himself with a frozen smile, went for $5.9 million, up from the $32,200 the original owner had paid a decade earlier. 

With results like that, China’s own millionaires, many of them newly minted, began buying art mostly as investment.