Most people would respond to that question with some of the biggest names in art, but odds are they’d get it wrong. It’s not Basquiat, it’s not Modigliani, Miró, Warhol, Rothko, or even Picasso for that matter. The name of the biggest-selling artist at auction is Zhang Daqian. His name may not generate nearly as much buzz as the others, but Daquian is China’s most popular artist, and as of 2017 –the top selling artist at auction. The Chinese modernist passed away in 1983, and his works generated $354.8 million in auction just last year, which is $31 million more than Picasso, just for the reference. So, who was Zhang Daquian, and how did he snag such a high ranking?
Zhang Daquian was a painter and collector, an innovator and trailblazer, a brilliant forger and an even greater creator. He was born into an artistic family and was encouraged to pursue painting early on. After travelling to Japan, Shanghai and Beijing, the Chinese artist learned different techniques and studied many styles. He received lessons from some of the greatest calligraphers and painters, carefully studied works by the ancient masters in detail, and soon began to make his own forgeries. His forged works were so good that he even managed to fool art experts. Due to his incessant travels, Zhang Daquian had the chance to master many styles, ranging from highly meticulous and detailed portraits, all the way to bold and large-scaled expressive splashed-ink landscapes. Being a dedicated and prolific creator, the Chinese modernist produced an astonishing 500 paintings a year. Ironically, after he gained worldwide recognition and fame, Zhang Daquian became one of the most forged artists himself.
Just this week, Zhang’s “splashed ink” scroll painting from 1965 was sold at a Christie’s sale in Hong Kong for $13.2 million, and that was only the sixth-highest auction price for his work. It seems like the Chinese auctions have slowly overtaken the financial power, with major sales such as this one popping up constantly. In 2016, China gained 38% of the $12.45 billion in global sales of public fine art, while the United States fell behind with 28%. It is not only modernism that sells well in China, historic art is continuing its steady climb in the auction prices. Interestingly, in 1985 it was illegal to sell art in mainland China, and now there are more than 400 auction houses. Perhaps times are catching up with the Chinese art market, and all the potential can now be unleashed.
China emerged as the art market’s prime power relatively recently, and it is maintaining that position, for now. The international contemporary art market is anticipating that Chinese market will open its views even further to include a taste for the most dominant names in the Western market. Most of the museums and collectors in the Chinese mainland are deeply rooted in tradition, with historical collections at their core. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether the Chinese collectors will develop a keen eye for the great names outside of their homeland, and how that might affect the international art market.