The Once-Hot Chinese Art Market Is Struggling to Reignite, According to a New Report

The market for Chinese art has fallen far below its 2011 peak.

Wu Guanzhong Zhouzhuang (1997) sold for $30.4 million. Courtesy Poly Auction Hong Kong.

The market for Chinese art—both within and outside of China—continues to struggle after peaking in 2011, according to a new study by artnet and the China Association of Auctioneers (CAA). Incidences of non-payment rose seven percent in 2016, and the number of overseas auction houses offering Chinese art and antiquities fell for the first time in seven years. Nevertheless, the market for Chinese art in mainland China is on the upswing after a period of contraction.

Source: artnet Price Database 2017


The figures come from the latest edition of the Global Chinese Art Auction Market Report, the sector’s only in-depth look at the worldwide market for Chinese art and antiquities. The report, which aims to provide the most accurate representation of the auction market in China, is the only such summary to include auction results from mainland China that have been vetted by a third-party organization.

To assemble the report, the CAA compiles data on works sold in mainland China directly from the auction houses in response to data submission requests. (The data was then independently verified by CAA.) Meanwhile, artnet compiles all data on works sold outside China—sales in Hong Kong and Taiwan qualify as overseas—including data from all 324 auction houses outside of mainland China that sold Chinese art and antiques in 2016.

Below, we’ve assembled the eight major takeaways from the fifth annual report.

Source: artnet Price Database 2017

  1. Auction sales are down. Auction sales of Chinese art and antiques totaled $6.7 billion worldwide in 2016, a decline of five percent on the previous year. This marks the third consecutive year that the total has declined.
  2. Mainland China is on the rise. Mainland China sold more Chinese art and antiques in 2016 by value than any other country in the world. Total sales in mainland China grew by seven percent, reaching $4.8 billion (¥33.4 billion), while the Western art market experienced a contraction. In the US alone, the market declined by 26 percent, while the United Kingdom saw a 14 percent decline year-on-year.
  3. The high-end market is growing. One of the driving factors for the recovery of the market in mainland China is the growth on the top end of the market (lots above ¥10 million). Mainland China is responsible for 29 percent of these lots sold in 2016—more than double the percentage just two years ago. As a result, the average lot price in mainland China has continued to grow since 2013, reaching $18,967 (¥131,062) last year.
  4. Sell-through rates are on the upswing. Sell-through rates have continued to increase in mainland China over the past two years, returning to 51 percent in 2016. However, that number is still down considerably from a sell-through rate of 58 percent in 2010, before the market peaked.

    Zhang Daqian, <i>Peach Blossom Spring</i> (1982) sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong for $34.9 million. Courtesy Sotheby's.

    Zhang Daqian, Peach Blossom Spring (1982) sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $34.9 million. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

  5. Non-payment is a chronic problem. Non-payment remains a major problem in mainland China—and it’s getting worse. Only 51 percent of buyers actually paid for the work they purchased in 2016, down from 58 percent in 2015. (The study’s authors attribute some of this decline to the rise in high-end sales, which are often paid for in installments.)
  6. Total overseas sales are down. The total sales value of Chinese art and antiques sold overseas declined by 27 percent year-on-year and dropped to $1.9 billion. The dip reflects an overarching trend in the overseas auction market, which declined 24 percent between 2015 and 2016.
  7. Less Chinese art at auction abroad. Fewer overseas auction houses offered Chinese art and antiques for sale last year. The number fell from 332 houses in 2015 to 324 in 2016, marking the first decline in seven years. The number of lots offered and sold also dropped for the first time since 2012.
  8. The market share continues to shift. The market for Chinese art and antiques is becoming increasingly concentrated towards Asia, as major auction houses shift their inventory to Hong Kong. The share of Chinese art and antiques sold in North America and Europe dropped from 33 percent in 2011 to 21 percent in 2016.

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