Mee-Seen Loong, curator of SHUIMO/Water Ink, says many works exhibited were sold even before the exhibition. Liu Lian / China Daily
Sotheby's is hosting its first public exhibition of Asian art with fixed sale prices at its New York headquarters, and more than half the 45 contemporary water-ink paintings by 14 Chinese artists have sold, according to the auction house.
The exhibition, SHUIMO/Water Ink, opened March 14 and is on view through on March 28. Each painting has a fixed price, from $8,000 to more than $1 million.
"A lot of them are under $100,000," says Mee-Seen Loong, a consultant to Sotheby's and a former managing director of Sotheby's Hong Kong, who is the exhibit's curator.
The artworks with fixed prices - rather than being offered in the traditional auction - are an attempt by Sotheby's to gain new business at time when its auction revenues have declined. It's also a move into an area traditionally run by private art galleries: sales exhibitions. And it's drawing criticism from some gallery owners who deal primarily in Asian art.
"This will be an uphill battle," says Martha Sutherland, principal of M. Sutherland Fine Arts gallery. "We offer the personal touch."
Beatrice L. Chang, owner of the gallery Dai Ichi Arts, is also hosting a contemporary Chinese water-ink exhibition. "Big auction houses are monopolizing this (the art market)," she says. "Galleries are the ones who work hard, who educate people and who are there for collectors for many years to come."
In 2012, Sotheby's reported a total revenue of $768.5 million, which included auctions and private sales. That was a decline of $63.3 million, or 8 percent, from 2011. The decrease was mainly caused by a $79.4 million (11 percent) drop in auction-commission revenue. Private sales were a record $906.5 million, an 11 percent increase from $814.6 million in 2011.
Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby's vice chairman of Asian art, says the auction house doesn't see its move into sales exhibitions as a threat to galleries.
"There are new galleries being formed and galleries closing down all the time," he says. "It's a constant cycle. I think Sotheby's is one of those new faces in that marketplace. It's just part of the ongoing innovation and creativity of the contemporary art market."
"People come for a known price, pay the price and leave, whereas there is an uncertainty at the auction that does not suit every buyer," he adds.
Many of the SHUIMO paintings were sold before the exhibition opened because Sotheby's sent their images to its long-term clients and established collectors, says Loong. "Some of them simply buy based on the image," she says.
Contemporary Chinese art prices surged to an all-time high in 2012, taking 29 of the top 50 hammer prices in public auctions worldwide, according to Artprice's annual report. The new and rapidly emerging field of contemporary Chinese water-ink painting became hot in 2012, with major Chinese auction houses actively hosting special sessions to introduce artists' works.
Loong, a Chinese art specialist who also produces her own "pop up" art sale exhibitions, says she recognized the rising value of contemporary Chinese water-ink paintings and approached Sotheby's to see if a gallery-type show was possible.
When Sotheby's gave her the go-ahead in February 2012, Loong says she wrote to artists she knows, and told them she needed their work by the end of that year. "Some of them started painting right away, and some took a long time," she says.
"I have done shows for them before. I've worked with some for years, helping place them in museums and in galleries. I am one of their representatives, in other words. I call myself their big sister."
Sutherland says she doesn't think it helps the artists to paint only for a sale at Sotheby's or Christie's.
"Hopefully, it gets people interested in Chinese water-ink paintings, and they will come to me to see paintings at a much lower price point, but the quality is much higher," she says.
To Chang, the move into gallerylike showings by the auction houses makes the future for galleries bleak.
"There is no advantage of a gallery. None," she says.
"At the end of the day, I will still be here selling paintings," Sutherland says.
"Time will tell how this goes. Let's wait and see."
By Liu Lian in New York