Vanity fair: Is art collecting for big pockets and big egos? 3 experts weigh in – Al Jazeera video

Record-breaking global art market: driven by passion for art or big spending egos?

A video talk aired on 28 May 2013 on al Jazeera titled What is driving global art sales? The two invited art experts attempt to answer if huge art auction prices reveal art appreciation, business speculation, or a vanity fair. 

Watch the complete discussion on al Jazeera below


The host of the talk, Inside Story presenter Shiulie Ghosh, invited Beijing-based artist Jean Paul Guiragossian, and Oscar Ho, director of the MA programme in cultural management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, to discuss the high prices of art.

Art Market or Stock Market?

Inside Story reported statistics provided from the consulting firm Arts Economics: the global art market has grown enormously in the past 25 years. In 1990, more than USD 27.2 billion worth of art was sold at art auctions and by art dealers. In 2007, art works totaling close to USD 66 billion sold. Despite an economic downturn in 2012, the market value for that year was USD 56 billion.

However, as Inside Story reports, 2012 was also noteworthy for the fact that out of the top ten highest selling artists, three were Chinese. In the broadcast, only Zhang Daqian was mentioned.

Forbes top selling artistsGraph courtesy of dated 17 January 2013.

Auction houses across China experienced a reversal of fortune in 2012, following three years of growth

Auction houses across China experienced a reversal of fortune in 2012, following three years of growth.

Picasso of the East

Chinese artist Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) is often referred to as the Picasso of the East. Like Picasso, he was prodigiously talented and, according to Inside Story, in 2011 his work sold for over USD 500 million. Specifically, 1,371 artworks, mainly paintings, by Zhang sold for a total of USD 554 million.

This grand total meant that Zhang, a lifelong friend of Picasso, had surpassed the Spanish artist’s world sales record: in 2010, Picasso was the highest-selling artist as his art sales totaled USD 360 million.

Oscar Ho explained that Zhang’s appeal to the art collector is that he is

outstanding, not only for his skills, but his knowledge and his ability to revitalize tradition and bringing a new element into Chinese ink painting.

Ho surmised that Zhang’s work may not be entirely understood or appreciated by the western collector, so it must be mainly Chinese collectors buying the master’s work.

In March 2011, an 18th century Chinese scroll painting was sold to a Chinese collector at $31 million at an auction in Toulouse, France. Image taken from

In March 2011, an 18th century Chinese scroll painting was sold to a Chinese collector at USD31 million at an auction in Toulouse, France. Image taken from

Who Determines the Value of Art?

In 2012, the global art market was valued at USD 56 billion, with individual pieces selling in the millions.  Such high prices confounded Shiulie Ghosh who asked her two guests, “who determines the value of art, and what makes an individual artist’s work sell for such huge figures?”

Artist Jean Paul Guiragossian said that there were two sides to art collecting: market speculation and aesthetic appreciation. He cited an example in the mid-80s, where a collector bought twenty de Koonings at an affordable price, only to sell them decades later in the millions.

Besides market speculation, forces like politics drive up prices according to Guiragossian, who discusses artist Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei is against the Chinese government, so Americans and Europeans pour lots of money to Ai Weiwei to make a point.

Photo from a Poly Auction event in Beijing.

Photo from a Poly Auction event in Beijing.

Art market made a seismic shift

According to Oscar Ho, for a long time the West dictated what is valuable art. The value of an artwork

doesn’t have much to do with the artwork, but rather who paid for it.

Ho goes on to explain that the art market works like any other kind of market. A market looks for new and exciting products with cheaper prices. When the products get too expensive and lose their exotic appeal, the market moves on to something new. He said that is what is happening with Chinese contemporary art, seeing as the market has dropped dramatically over the past few years.


Zhang Daqian’s ‘Lotus’ sold at Christie’s for USD 10.4 m in May 2013. Image courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2011

Vanity fair?

Ghosh pointed out that Ai Weiwei’s “pile of wooden stools” sold for more than half a million US dollars, with the implication being that it is only a “pile of wooden stools.” Oscar Ho said in reply:

the art market is getting so crazy. The whole thing is a vanity fair and market speculation…We measure quality of art by its market value, that really reduces its power, and function of art. Art is much more than that. We’ve just reduced art to being just merchandise. Now it’s become an exclusive product for the very rich and this is a dangerous way of looking at it.

Related Topics: market watch, promoting art, art fairs

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