February 2008, Interview with Pia Copper, contemporary Chinese art specialist from the French leading independent auction house, ArtCurial

Paris-based White Hot contributor Tara Desjardins recently interviewed Pia Copper, contemporary Chinese art specialist from France’s leading independent auction house, ArtCurial, to understand why this market continues to exceed expectations, where the concentration of new wealth is located, and France’s future role within this market.

WM: Why do you think China has become the “hottest stop on the international art circuit”?

Because Chinese art is so exciting and new and the artists really know what they are doing; but I think that’s sort of a déjà vu statement because although it’s the hottest stop on the art market, it used to be even hotter. It was more interesting five years ago because you got to see the artists in their studios and now you only see galleries. But in terms of the amount of galleries and museum shows, yes, it’s definitely the most happening place.

WM: Why do you think the market was stronger five years ago?

The market was not stronger five years ago. The scene was stronger. Chinese art has been legitimized by major galleries. It has become a lot more expensive, so it’s not as exciting as before. Now you’re really looking at established artists and galleries. Although the market itself may be headed for a slump.

WM: Is it true that most currently established Chinese artists built their careers without the benefit of gallery representation, and instead sell their work directly to collectors (cutting out the ‘middle dealer)? How is the market structure different from what we often see in the West, where artists traditionally need gallery representation for the sales of their work?

PC: I think the problem is that Chinese artists, in the beginning, didn’t even know what the art market was, so they were selling to absolutely everyone and they didn’t know if those people were interesting collectors or just amateur collectors. But now there are some artists who are very faithful to their galleries and won’t sell works outside of that contractual relationship; but there are still others that are craftier and will continue to sell things under the table (as will happen in any market). But now what’s happening more and more is that artists such as Zhang Xiaogang (who recently sold a painting for US $5million – his most expensive work sold) just signed with Pace Wildenstein Gallery in New York. So now he’s on a contract for millions of dollars and will not be selling to anyone privately anymore.

WM: Christie’s and Sotheby’s Hong Kong Spring 2007 Asian contemporary auctions fetched $36 and $27 million, respectively, (the majority of lots being Chinese artists). Do these figures, which more than double auction results held in New York testify to the strong local/regional support for contemporary art?

PC: Yes, I think it’s a very regional market but at the same time it’s a very international market because you’ve got Chinese people in Malaysia, Singapore, and even in India collecting. There’s also a pan-Asian phenomena: Korean, Japanese, and Indian collectors are buying Chinese art. Originally the idea of having Chinese auctions in New York was to appeal to the Chinese population in America who have succeeded and could afford to collect art. But I think now the greatest fortunes are in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, with Hong Kong only a few hours away from the mainland capitals of China, its both easy and fun to visit for a weekend and buy a few paintings. It is closer, more convenient, and you don’t have to ship the paintings as far.

WM: How important has the local support of Poly Group and Guardian (the two largest Chinese auction houses) been in creating this market?

PC: I think they have helped and hindered the market. You mentioned two of the biggest auction houses, but there are others such as Jiade, Hosane, Jianheng and hundreds of others in Beijing that have both strengthened and weakened the market. Chinese auction houses have flooded the market with paintings; they try to find as many paintings as possible to put into their auction, which means they are fewer and fewer high quality paintings available. Another problem is that there are no laws regarding Chinese auction houses that are really enacted. Chinese auction houses can do what they want, whereas in Paris, New York, or London if you have any unorthodox practices, you are immediately legally responsible for your actions. But that’s not the case in China.

WM: Do you think those legal regulations and practices will tighten up with time?

PC: I think they will definitely tighten up, hopefully, because there is also some terrible speculation surrounding some of these major Chinese auction houses because they offer such excellent vendor and buyer’s conditions. That kind of auction will not survive, and furthermore the works they are selling are becoming surrealistically and falsely expensive. They are creating a bubble. It’s not the real value, whereas in Hong Kong, New York, London, or Paris it is the real value of the art.

WM: How would you describe the difference between the art scene in Beijing versus Shanghai?

PC: The Beijing art scene has always been stronger because the most famous artists are centered in Beijing, and that could be because some were politically motivated. Also, the Beijing Central Art Academy is one of the finest in the country; if you’re accepted there you are one of the most talented and gifted artists around. Shanghai is the financial capital with a lot of money and a cultural elite. The artists there are stronger in abstract and video art. It’s a different school, but just as interesting. In a sense it’s more refined and less obvious.

WM: The issue of government censorship and suppression in the visual arts appears to have subsided recently. In what ways do you feel this has contributed to the overall market performance as well as individual artistic expression? Why?

PC: I feel that in the late 80s after Tiananmen, a lot of exhibitions were closed by the government. I think those actions actually helped the creativity of the artists and inspired them to do incredible things, simply because they were in a climate of great political tension and they wanted to express their individual freedom (especially through performances, such as artist Zhang Huan who did all these performances in the East Village outside of Beijing locking himself in an iron cage and in a latrine). I think the government now has a laisser-faire policy towards the artists, probably thinking that if these artists are not going to produce a climate of discontent or inspire the masses to revolution, then they don’t have to worry. As long as they stay in their studios, continue to paint and hold discussion groups amongst intellectuals, then that’s fine because these groups of intellectuals will not influence the future of China. But now I think it’s totally changed in the sense that the artists have become a legitimate part of society and important members of the social elite who are dominating the political-social scene in China. Artists like Ai Wei Wei, who used to be considered a persona non grata in China (publishing underground books) is now designing the Olympic Stadium and has daily discussions with government officials. So, they seem to agree! After years of struggle and tension these artists have re-appeared. Now there’s really a social-cultural- intellectual elite that has joined forces with the economic elite in China. A new elite has been born.

WM: You were the curator of ArtCurial’s first non-western contemporary sale in which you featured many Chinese artists. How successful were those works in the sale and where do you see ArtCurial’s role in the next five years within the overall market performance?

PC: ArtCurial recently opened an auction house in China in collaboration with Chinese partners on Jan 15th, 2008, and they did a sale of very classical Chinese painting with a few contemporary pieces, which was very successful (making six million Euros). I think auction houses like ArtCurial have to expand; they have to go beyond France in order to survive because the economic climate today is such that the people who have money are concentrated in Asia, Dubai and Russia. If that’s where the money is coming from, then that’s where the art market needs to go in order to find the clients.

WM: So you don’t feel that there is a wealth of local French support for contemporary Chinese art because the money is no longer concentrated here?

PC: No. The problem is that Chinese art has become too expensive for French buyers. But I think that British, German, Italian, and French buyers who have exiled themselves in Belgium (those with more wealth) are collecting.

WM: How would you describe your experience, as a non-Chinese female specialist, working in a traditionally isolated market?

PC: I speak good Chinese and I get along really well with Chinese people. It can be good or bad. It can be good in the sense that you’re a foreigner coming in with an outside perspective and I think Chinese people are very open to that. They want to meet people with an outside perspective who give an opinion that is different from their own; they always appreciate people who really understand their culture. There is obviously a certain clique-shness about Chinese society that is difficult to penetrate. But Chinese collectors now are becoming very serious about studying their collections; there is a real seriousness about collecting. But even the new collectors are learning by experience. I think collecting is a continuous education.

Tara Desjardins

Raised in the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia, Tara Desjardins interest in art started at a young age. Tara holds a B.A degree in Art History from Skidmore College, with a minor in Middle Eastern studies, and an M.A. degree in Art Business from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. Tara has worked for the chief curators of Islamic art at the British Museum and the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute. In addition, she has also worked as the press director at the Sherry French Gallery, New York City. Tara is currently an editorial assistant at Parkstone International as well as a Paris-based freelance writer specializing in Contemporary Arabic art. desjardins.tara@gmail.com


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