Thursday, February 25, 2010

Qi Baishi is only just behind Picasso in art sales ranking

Peaches and Fire Crackers

Qi Baishi is not a name that many Western aficionados of art can recognise, let alone pronounce.

This son of Chinese peasants, who received no formal artistic training, has just become the third bestselling artist in the world at auction. Figures out next month from the art market data organisation Art Price will show that Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol raked in more than $220 million (£143 million) in sales between them in 2009, heading the rankings as they do almost every year.

The appearance of Qi immediately below them, with more than $70 million in sales, says much about the changing shape of the international art market and China’s economic boom. Qi (1863-1957) owes his place on the list to his work being original, striking and instantly recognisable — and to his being prolific, ensuring a steady supply of pieces to the market.

In China, he is a household name, best known for his reflective late pictures of mice, birds and particularly shrimps.

The Art Price figures are compiled from 6,000 auction houses around the globe but before last year the highest appearance by a non-Western artist was achieved by Zhang Xiaogang, a contemporary Chinese artist who reached 22nd place in 2007.

In 2009 the traditional auction powerhouses of New York and London suffered their worst year in a generation — at the same time as the Chinese art market, and Qi in particular, had a surge in value fuelled by local new money. The number of dollar billionaires in China reached 130 last year and the country is now the third most important art market in the world after London and New York.

Qi is the natural beneficiary. Patti Wong, chairwoman of Sotheby’s Asia, said that 20 years ago Qi was much sought after by US buyers who had worked in China, but that was no longer the case. They can no longer compete. Qi features in “every important Chinese collection”.

His work has grown in value over the past two decades but last year he sold 73 per cent more works than in 2008, substantially helped by a sale in November in which a series of his drawings entitled Flowers and Insects sold for a record equivalent to £8.1 million.

The record acknowledged price for one of his works was set at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in 2007 when his Peaches and Fire Crackers (1952) sold for about £850,000, although Chinese auction houses have claimed much higher figures.

Shelagh Vainker, curator of Chinese art at the Ashmolean, in Oxford, which has the largest collection of 20th-century Chinese paintings in Britain, said that Qi had a broad following based on “the instant visual appeal” of pictures that are often painted in a “light, slightly uplifting way”.

Not that he is a lightweight. The pictures “reward deeper contemplation”, Ms Vainker said. “The brushwork is very good and I know some extremely well-educated people in China who would regard him as the No 1 Chinese artist of the 20th century.”

Picasso called Qi “the greatest oriental painter” and said that he did not dare visit China for fear of meeting him.

Qi was born in Hunan province, central China, and as a child he loved to copy from a famous Qing Dynasty painting manual, The Mustard Seed Garden. At 14 he became an apprentice woodcarver, and he went on to master poetry, calligraphy, painting and the traditional art of seal carving.

In middle age he travelled widely through China, and it was after he moved to Beijing in the 1920s that his mature style emerged.


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