Art market crosses the last frontier

Collectors are now snapping up Chinese paintings, says Iain Robertson
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THE FRENCH windows stand ajar behind an imposing mahogany desk. On the walls hang important art works. I am in the head office of Marlborough Fine Art in Albemarle Street, the heart of London's art market.

Gilbert Lloyd, managing director, leans over the desk and speaks into an intercom; his distinctive, clipped consonants resonate in the spacious room. "Bring me the Beijing auction results." An assistant appears with prices and illustrations.

Chen Yi-fei, a recent addition to Marlborough's stable of more than 80 artists, has done well. The oil painting, "Old Shanghai", a piece of masterly nostalgia from a local boy made good, realised RMB1.1m (pounds 81,000) in May. Mr Lloyd has again turned an art work, with latent economic potential, into an extremely valuable commodity: oil paint into hard currency.

So, who is Chen Yi-fei? He was born in Ningbo, mainland China, in 1946, but grew up in Shanghai at a time when intellectuals and artists served either the state or long prison sentences. Chen chose the former and created a number of grand political paintings, such as "Eulogy of the Yellow River" (1972) and "Thinking of History from my Space" (1979) in which the artist famously painted himself and his chair into a patchwork of images from the years around the collapse of the Ching dynasty - propaganda art with an edge.

After a long period in America, where he pleased rich American collectors - notably Armand Hammer - with romantic visions of his homeland, he - in the form of his paintings - has returned to China and sold at high prices to Taiwanese, Hong Kongese and mainland Chinese.

Chen's success in the states has put a premium in the Far East on his sentimental brand of realism, and he has fast become a global commodity. He has spawned a whole school of imitators, but his greatest success has come since he joined Marlborough Fine Art.

Marlborough has positioned his work in public museum exhibitions, such as the forthcoming show in Aix-en-Provence, and has sold his work at auctions and art fairs throughout Asia. Mr Lloyd has shown his paintings in his network of galleries and exclusive private venues such as David Tang's China Club in Hong Kong.

Now the ubiquitous dealer is thinking of opening up a Marlborough franchise in Shanghai where he will no doubt show Chen Yi-fei. The reason for his caution, he says, is "the current financial instability in Asia, the problem of setting up an initially small joint venture in the PRC, and unclear customs regulations on the import and export of works of art". Although, he is at pains to stress, "we are not risk averse; after all, we were in Japan in 1969".

But there is much more to contemporary Chinese art in London than Marlborough and Chen Yi-fei. Michael Goedhuis of Mayfair, a former economist with Credit Suisse and art business partner of Jacob Rothschild, also operates in this market. He, like Gilbert Lloyd, has noticed a sharp increase in British collecting interest in this field.

A fortnight ago, at the opening of his Yang Yan Ping show (another artist from the mainland who works with coloured ink on paper) he sold a work to Michael Sullivan, the China historian. Earlier in the year, two old Etonian bankers, school friends, and rock musician Eric Clapton, whom Mr Goedhuis describes as having a "flawless and intuitive instinct for quality", bought works by Gu Gan, another of his stable of pen-and-ink artists. Prices for these works fall between $1,500 and $30,000.

The ink-and-paper Guohua tradition Mr Goedhuis favours is also sold by Hugh and Colette Hawes of the Eastern Art Gallery in Bloomsbury. The gallery has been collecting it since Mr Hawes received a book royalty in 1963, found Picasso too expensive and instead acquired a work by Fu Bau-shi, a landscape artist, now worth about pounds 6,000. The Hawes gallery sells beautiful scroll paintings as wall hangings, acquiring the works from wonderful sounding old trading companies and former co-operatives like the China International Book Trading Company and the Retired Artists Association.

Newest on the scene is Chinese Contemporary, a stone's throw from Marlborough. This is the result of a partnership between Julia Colman, an art historian, and Ludovic Bois, a former merchant banker. They have placed their confidence in the rapidly rising star of post-1989, avant garde, mainland Chinese oil painting. In their regular trips to China they buy the raw material, either directly from the artist or occasionally from the handful of Western dealers in Beijing and Shanghai. They operate with artists on a sale-or- return basis, selling these imaginative and at times disturbing works for as little as pounds 500, predominantly to English buyers.

So, aesthetics aside, what should an astute British collector seek to buy to ensure a good return in 10 years' time?

Mr Goedhuis believes that Westerners buy into the Chineseness of Chinese art. "If you want a hard commercial reason for this", he declares, "it is because the Chinese in future, - those who will be paying $1m (pounds 600,000) for a painting - will not be paying that for a Western style image".

However, Marlborough begs to differ, and so do the Taiwanese who bought heavily into Western-style mainland Chinese oil paintings in Taipei this spring.

So the big question is, will the mainland Chinese buyers of the future jettison the currently favoured Western style in favour of a return to tradition, or will they demand something that reflects their experiences of the Mao era?

The other great uncertainty revolves around pricing. London is perhaps the world's largest market for oriental art as a whole, with between 40 and 50 world class dealers, but contemporary Chinese art is, at the moment, a tiny part of the greater whole and highly sensitive to price fluctuations. If, as is happening, the market in the People's Republic itself becomes developed, prices for this commodity will rise at source and dealers such as Chinese Contemporary will find it difficult to survive.

Of course, for the likes of Marlborough and Mr Goedhuis, a regulated China market rather like to Taiwan's would announce the arrival of a vast new business opportunity, which they and the Taiwanese dealers, with their stocks of blue-chip Chinese artists, would be delighted to enter.

There is another factor, as Mr Goedhuis explains. "If the Chinese emulate the Taiwanese and take an aesthetic view, it would convulse the market and prices might very rapidly multiply by a quotient of 10 to 20 in just 18 months."

Some years ago, the Hong Kongese did take a view on Imperial porcelain, as did the Taiwanese on 4th and 5th century sculpture, and these very soon became inaccessible to the Western connoisseur.

Whether the fledgling market survives to any extent as a primary market in London depends in the end on developments in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland.

Ironically, it is not likely to be the bursting of the general contemporary art bubble that will diminish the prospects for Chinese contemporary art in London - as was the fate of Russian art - but its dramatic success as a cultural commodity within Asia itself.