The Chinese Art Market Is Reviving But Nonpayments Increasingly Plague the Sector, Our Exclusive Auction Report Reveals

The sixth annual artnet and China Auctioneers report shows that other weaknesses combine to paint a bleak picture of the market.

There are several bright spots in the global market for Chinese art and antiquities, including growth in overall volume of sales and price performance at the very high end, according to recent results. But other weak areas remain, particularly at the low and middle end of the market, while buyer defaults on pricey auction lots still continue to plague the sector.

artnet has once again teamed up with the China Association of Auctioneers (CAA) to present the sixth annual edition of the Global Chinese Art Auction Market report, tracking data for calendar year 2017. It is the only report of its kind to offer an in-depth analysis of the trends driving the market for Chinese art and antiques.

To assemble the report, the CAA compiles data on works sold in mainland China directly from the auction houses. (The data is then independently verified by CAA.) Meanwhile, artnet compiles all data on works sold outside China, including sales in Hong Kong and Taiwan, both of which qualify as overseas.

Here are the key findings of the report.


1. Global Auction Sales Are Up. 

The report found that sales of Chinese art and antiques totaled $7.1 billion, a seven percent increase from the previous year. As a result, there is broad optimism about the growing strength of the market, according to the findings. But while that volume marks an improvement over previous years, it is still down substantially from the record high above $10 billion that the Chinese market hit in 2011.

2. Demand for Top Lots Is Stronger Than Ever.

In both mainland China and overseas, there has been a notable increase in the ultra-high-end market, where lots are valued above $14 million (¥100 million). In 2017, 38 lots sold in this bracket, more than double the number reported in 2016 and nearly 10 times the 2013 total. Notably, Chinese top-selling artist Qi Baishi has joined the so-called $100 million club, joining the ranks of blue-chip stars like Picasso, Modigliani, Bacon, Munch, and Warhol. At a Poly International auction in Beijing this past December, a 1925 hanging scroll by Qi Baishi sold for $141 million.

3. Prices for Fine Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy Are Also Robust.

The average price for work in this category reached a historic high of $32,855 in mainland China in 2017. According to the report, the growth is still largely supported by the boom in the high-end market. The middle market continues to shrink in size, and the overall sell-through rate dropped to its lowest level since 2010.

Chen Rong, <i>Six Dragons</i> (13th Century) sold for $49 million at the Fujita Museum sale at Christie's. Image courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Chen Rong, Six Dragons (13th century) sold for $49 million at the Fujita Museum sale at Christie’s. Image courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

4. But Defaults Remain a Major Issue, With Buyers Paying for Less Than Half Their Purchases. 

It’s no secret that buyers defaulting on successful bids in auctions—including for many pricey lots—is a problem that has plagued the market in mainland Chinese for quite some time. According to the report, among all lots sold there in 2017, the percentage of the total sales value paid as of May 2018 was only 49 percent, the lowest such figure since 2011. The nonpayment rate is even greater when applied to lots over ¥10 million ($1.5 million) for which only 28 percent of the value had been paid. Of the 18 lots that sold for above ¥100 million on the mainland in 2017, only two had been paid in full by May of this year.

5. Prices for 20th-Century and Contemporary Chinese Art Are Ascendant Overseas.

The average price for this category of work jumped 19 percent to hit $207,423, even higher than in the preceding 2011 market peak, the report says. The sell-through rate also remained high at 60 percent.

A pink-ground Falangcai bowl with Yuzhi Mark And Period Of Kangxi, sold for $30.4 million at Sotheby's Hong Kong in April. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

A pink-ground Falangcai bowl with Yuzhi Mark And Period Of Kangxi, sold for $30.4 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

6. North America Saw a Major Boost in Sales of Chinese Art.

There was a 62 percent increase in the total sales value of Chinese art and antiques sold in North America on a year-over-year basis, according to the report. This number was bolstered by a single March 2017 auction at Christie’s New York of art from the Fujita Museum. The landmark sale took in more than $262 million in a single evening, more than the total value of Chinese art sold in North America over the entire previous year.

7. However, Sell-Through Rates for Chinese Art & Antiques Plummeted Abroad as a Whole.

In 2017, the percentage of Chinese art and antiques that found buyers at auction outside the mainland dropped significantly, continuing a downward trend seen in previous years. The rate decreased from 69 percent in 2011—which was close to the US average of 70 percent—to 47 percent in 2017, dipping below rates in mainland China for the first time.

Sell-Through Rate of Chinese Art and Antiques by Region. Source: artnet Price Database

Sell-Through Rate of Chinese Art and Antiques by Region. Source: artnet Price Database

8. In China, Mid- and Low-End Sections of the Auction Market Are Suffering. 

The report says smaller auction houses are still struggling to make ends meet. In 2017, there were over 200 mainland Chinese auction houses in “hibernation,” meaning they held no sales that year. That number is more than double the 86 inactive houses in 2011. The number of such houses saw a significant jump in 2015, and it has been steadily growing ever since, the report says.

Read the full report here.

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