Chinese artists laugh all the way to the bank in £20m auction

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The fine art world's appetite for contemporary Chinese art shows no sign of abating, with works by six of the country's leading names auctioned for record sums at the weekend in a sale totalling £20m.

Yue Minjun's The Massacre At Chios fetched £2m at Sotheby's in Hong Kong. The striking picture of laughing, pink-skinned figures was inspired by the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and based on the 1824 masterpiece of the same name by the French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix.

"The sale confirms the impressive vitality and confidence of this sector of the auction market," said the auctioneer's head of contemporary Chinese art, Evelyn Lin, who described the current interest in work from China as "phenomenal".

Bidding was fierce at the sale room in Hong Kong, which is the world's third-biggest art market after New York and London. Yue's painting, which uses images from the Cultural Revolution and other propaganda motifs, as well as his trademark laughing figures, is based on Delacroix's painting documenting the massacre of the Greeks by the Turks on the island of Chios in 1821. Writing in the Sotheby's catalogue, Yue said he lost his idealism in the aftermath of the slaughter of pro-democracy activists in Beijing in 1989. His grinning self-portrait, The Pope, sold for £2.14m at Sotheby's in London in June.

Another highlight in the Hong Kong auction was Project For Extraterrestrials No. 10, Project To Extend The Great Wall Of China by Cai Guo-qiang – a scorched gunpowder-on-paper record of a 1993 art project in which he lit a trail of gunpowder at the end of the Great Wall.

The 3m by 20m work, which typifies the inventive approach taken by many contemporary Chinese artists, sold for £1.3m and beat the record price for Cai's art set only a month ago when Man, Eagle And Eye In The Sky: Eyes fetched £620,000 in New York. Cai is one of the biggest names in the new school of Chinese art and will be honoured with a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum next year.

Records fell at every bang of the gavel. Yu Chen's Red Babies Series sold for five times its estimate at £20,000. Xu Bing broke his auction record twice – his calligraphy Silkworm Series: The Foolish Old Man Who Tried To Remove The Mountain went for £330,000, breaking a previous high set minutes earlier. Many of the new artists lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. Much of their work is deeply political as they take advantage of the new-found freedom of expression since China began to open up a quarter of a century ago.

Artists' colonies, such as the 798 Art District housed in a disused military electronics factory, are dotted around Beijing. The area, often compared with New York's Greenwich Village or SoHo, was chosen by artists in 2002 as a cheap place to work but faces impending destruction from the forces driving Beijing's urban sprawl. It has also become an expensive venue as prices for contemporary Chinese art keep rising. Some painters have moved to other parts of the city to find cheaper studios.

Critics generally applaud the growing interest in Chinese art, saying it is the recognition many artists deserve after working in poor conditions and obscurity for so long. Others are sceptical, claiming it is difficult to judge the quality of the material because the market is so new.

That has not stopped wealthy Chinese flocking to sales to buy works by the star artists of the post-Mao era, such as Yu Chen and Zhang Xiaogang. Sotheby's said 80 per cent of the works sold in Hong Kong at the weekend exceeded their list prices, while the 10 most-expensive lots were bought by Asian collectors.