In Focus: The $1m Chinese Traditional Paintings and Works of Art Market

In Focus: The $1m Chinese Traditional Paintings and Works of Art Market

T his section includes paintings and objects made by artists and artisans from China, working in and outside the region, from the Neolithic period (around 7,000–1,700BC) to the 19th century. We have grouped Chinese art into two categories: Chinese Works of Art from the Neolithic period to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911; and Traditional Paintings from the 12th to 19th centuries. Within these categories, we have grouped works by imperial dynasties, since shifts in the ruling patronage influenced changes in styles. Our results cover two major international auction houses: Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The data does not include results from the domestic Chinese market.

Sales of Chinese Traditional Paintings and Works of Art in the $1m+ range declined between 2018 and 2020, dropping from $443.2m to $189.1m. Sales stabilised in 2021 and 2022 as pandemic restrictions continued throughout the period in mainland China and Hong Kong.

Economic uncertainty, both globally and within China, including a worsening property slump across the country, contributed to the decline in art sales. Such issues are particularly significant, since 83.7% of bidders for Chinese art are based in Asia. The market was further affected by political crises, lockdowns and strict zero-Covid policies in mainland China and Hong Kong, where most Chinese art sales take place.

High-end Chinese works of art sales by value 2018–2022

On top of this, there have been no “trophy” pieces – works that sell for $20m or more – at auction in 2021 and 2022 (compared with four in 2018, two in 2019 and one in 2020).

Sales of Chinese art in the $1m+ price bracket fell by 62.2% over a five- year period, from $443.2m in 2018 to $167.4m in 2022. Sales in the first half of 2022 totalled $63.4m. The second half of 2022 saw a rise in sales to $104m.

With the end of the mainland China lockdown, this market may be poised to see the same lift that the other markets enjoyed after 2020.

Traditional Paintings and Works of Art being seen less at auction

Chinese Works of Art, which include bronzes, ceramics and jade, accounted for $1bn (77.7%) of all Chinese art sales between 2018 and 2022. Totals fell here as well, from $330.6m for 81 works in 2018 to $140.2m for 58 pieces in 2022.

High-end Chinese works of art by category 2018–2022

With $287.9m in sales, Traditional Paintings – calligraphic works and landscapes executed in brush and ink – made up 22.3% of overall sales of $1m+ Chinese art between 2018 and 2022. Their supply is limited and their numbers at auction have shrunk considerably, from 22 in 2018 to nine in 2022.

Most bidders are from Asia

Overall, most of the offered Chinese works in the $1m+ range sell at auction. In 2021, 19.5% failed to find buyers, dropping to just 14.1% in 2022.

Chinese price segmentation by total lots 2018–2022

Proprietary data from Sotheby’s about people who placed bids on Chinese Traditional Paintings and Works of Art with low estimates of $1m or more between 2018 and 2022 shows that the overwhelming majority (83.7%) of bids are from Asia. They were followed by North America (9.3%) and Europe (5.4%). Despite representing the smallest segment, Europeans were responsible for the highest bidding on average over the past two years (2021– 2022), with $4.6m, compared to the $3.6m in average bidding from Asians and $1.9m from North Americans.

Top-Selling Dynasties

Price segmentation by dynasty 2018–2022

*Includes Zhou, Six, Han, Jin, Qi and Sui dynasties

Most of the $1m+ sales of Chinese art by value are for works from the Qing Dynasty (1636–1911), the last of China’s imperial dynasties. Between 2018 and 2022, $588.1m in sales were made, including a rare Kangxi-period pink bowl from the Forbidden City imperial workshops that sold for $30.4m in 2018. Art such as porcelain, jade objects and paintings flourished under the Qing Dynasty, particularly under the patronage of the Kangxi (1662–1722) and Qianlong (1736–95) emperors.

The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) accounts for $329.3m in $1m+ sales. Works from this period include calligraphy by artists and poets Yao Shou and Wen Zhengming, and the blue and white porcelain for which the Ming Dynasty is famous. One such example, a blue-and-white dragon-stem bowl made under the emperor Xuande (reigned 1425–35) sold in 2019 for $9.6m.

Art that sold for $1m or more from the Song Dynasty, which is separated into Northern Song (960–1127) and Southern Song (1127–1279), totalled $139.1m at auction. The most expensive work was one of the rare surviving paintings by the Northern Song scholar Su Shi. His 11th-century painting, Wood and Rock, sold for $59.3m in 2018.

A famed scroll by Ren Renfa helped $1m+ art from the Yuan Dynasty (1271– 1368) reach $54.3m in sales. Shanghai’s Long Museum bought Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback for a record-breaking $39.2m in 2020.

Art in the $1m+ level from the Shang (around 1600BC–1046BC) and Tang (618–907) dynasties totalled $33.3m and $21m respectively. An early Shang marble sculpture of a stylised frog sold for $3.7m in 2022.

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