Why Zao Wou-ki is the best seller of the Chinese art market

From Sotheby's to Poly, Zao Wou-ki's paintings have appeared on the covers of the consignment invitation for the 2019 spring auction. Nowadays, Zao Wou-ki is one of the best sellers in the Chinese art market, the second biggest art market in the world.


In 1992, Zao Wou-ki's Hommage á Tou-Fou sold for $46,000 in Paris. Sixteen years later, it sold for nearly $6m in Hong Kong in 2008. The price of the painting has increased more than 100 times in 16-years time. During the heydays of the Chinese art market in 2011, Zao Wou-ki's art was the most expensive. His total turnover that year reached $90m, surpassing all other famous Chinese contemporary artists, for example, Zeng Fanzhi and Zhang Xiaogang.


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▲Hommage á Tou-Fouhas increased more than 100 times in 16-years time.


In recent years, Zao's name continuously appears on the top 10 sales of Chinese contemporary art. In 2017, his auction turnovers jumped from HK$90m to HK$200m (About $11m to $25m). In 2018, Zao's Juin-Octobre 1985 sold for HK$500m (about $63m) at Sotheby's Hong Kong, breaking Asia's auction record. Zhang Dingyuan, Christie's director of Asian 20th Century & Contemporary art said: "The best era of Zao Wou-ki's art market has come."


That said, many people still doubt the value of Zao's market. While one of Zao'sartworks broke the record in 2018, two other works of his, failed to sell. Ultimately, Zou Wou-Ki's annual income, surprisingly, decreased after it reached its peak in 2007. Just recently, Guggenheim Museum decided to deaccession one of Zao's paintings from their collection.


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▲Accroing to Artprice, only 27% of turnovers of Zao's artworks are made overseas


It is to be noted that despite international recognition, Zao Wou-ki still faces a problem similar to other Chinese artists – his artwork is usually bought by other Chinese. According to Artprice, half of Zao Wou-ki's works were sold in China and Hong Kong, which accounts for 72% of his overall turnovers. Zhang Yingjiang, the director of the 20-year-old Taiwanese art gallery New Age Gallery told us: "About 90% of Zao Wou-ki's market is probably in Taiwan. It has never truly become international." If we look at the top 10 sales of Zao Wou-ki's work, we'll find that most of his art was bought by Taiwanese.


Many people wonder how the Chinese-French artist rose to stardom so quickly in recent years and question whether his market will continue to do well in 2019. It is hard to say if his market will thrive in the coming years, but there's no doubt that Zao Wou-ki's market is capable of large success after brewing for half a century.


Zao Wou-ki was born in Beijing. He learned traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy during his early years. In 1948, Zao moved to Paris with his wife, where his earliest exhibitions were praised by Joan Miró and Picasso. In 1950, Zao had already started working with Parisian art dealer Pierre Loeb.


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▲Zao Wou-ki withPierre Loeb (middle) in Paris


In the 60s, Zao's painting techniques grew tremendously. Most of his best selling work today is from that time. Zao once said: "I was like a rushing car in those ten years." In 1958, Zao began his partnership with the New York art dealer Samuel Kootz. Kootz introduced Zao's paintings to the US market for the first time. It was also Kootz who encouraged Zao to create more large scale paintings.


In the 1980s, galleries and art dealers, including Pierre-Matisse, signed contracts with Zao Wou-ki. In the 1990s, the prestigious Swiss gallery Galerie Jan Krugier began to promote Zao Wou-ki in Asia.Taiwanese galleries were the first Asian galleries to feature Zao Wou-ki. This was in 1992 when Dimension Endowment of Art started to sell Zao Wou-ki's paintings. In the following years, a few Taiwanese galleries joined the trend of selling Zao Wou-ki's artworks.


Today, in the 21st century, Zao Wou-ki's work is more celebrated by first-tier galleries. In 2003, Zao Wou-ki started to work with Marlborough Gallery. In 2017, the famous gallery Lévy Gorvy decided to represent Zao's art. Lévy Gorvy's senior partner Emilio Steinberger told us that: "the gallery had admired the work of Zao Wou-ki for many years and believed him to be a key post-war artist whose works had been somewhat overlooked. The relationship began a few years ago we organized an exhibition of Zao Wou-ki and Willem de Kooning, as the inaugural Lévy Gorvy show in New York."


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▲Zao Wou-ki and Willem de Kooning, as the inaugural Lévy Gorvy show in New York


When asked about Zao Wou-ki's market performance in the US, Mr Steinberger said that: "collectors in general are coming to a greater understanding of the uniqueness and significance of Zao Wou-ki. The more his work is exhibited globally, the more people become attuned of the central role Zao Wou-ki has played in the post-war art movement. "


Whether or not Zao's market is going to do well in 2019, his art is worth exploring and even buying. His paintings uniquely portray traditional Chinese aesthetic with elements of western modernism. "His works are at the centre of the connection between Western and Chinese art, and his contributions to post-war art are undeniable, which collectors of Abstract Expressionism and post-war art are becoming more aware of," said Mr Steinberger.


Translated by Zhou Zhang