China’s Art Market Shoots Through The Roof

An astronomical price for a work by Chinese painter Qi Baishi offers clues to where China’s art market – and other sectors of the economy – may be heading.

Qi Baishi's 'Eagle Standing on Pine Tree with Four-character Couplet in Seal Script
Qi Baishi's "Eagle Standing on Pine Tree with Four-character Couplet in Seal Script
Zhao Xiaoxuan

BEIJING - The art market in China has been breaking price records on a regular basis over the past 20 years. One million RMB ($154,000) for a top painter's work was considered an astronomical price a decade ago. Last year, a new record for the sale of a modern Chinese painting reached 100 million RMB ($15.4 million). Even that price has now been topped, several times over.

A Qi Baishi painting called "Eagle Standing on Pine Tree with Four-character Couplet in Seal Script," which was once given to former Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek for his 60th birthday, shattered the record last week with a price of 425 million RMB ($65 million).

Even if the auction price of Qi Baishi's painting is news itself, what deserves even more attention is the way the public and media have responded. The work in question had attracted significant interest even before the auction because of Qi's importance, the large size of the painting, and because its potential political significance. Who sold it? Who bought it? Why was it so expensive? What could prompt a buyer to pay such a price?

The renowned collector Liu Yiqian was the lucky seller, cashing out with some $45 million on the deal.

Of course, the auction house says such a remarkable price is merely a reflection of the real value of this wonderful painting. Others have taken the sale as the clearest sign of the rising irrationality of the art market, the expanding speculative bubble, and the inevitable crash that will follow.

Why is this painting so precious? Whether or not we consider it to be expensive is a relative question; the outsider doesn't need to worry about the poor buyer having overpaid, because the price of art is not decided by the seller, but by the buyer and what he is willing to pay.

This painting is la crème de la crème in the market because of the combined effects of its various themes. Indeed, an astronomical price had been predicted by many beforehand. The best art collectors don't worry about high prices, but look to avoid buying the wrong thing. A fake vase, a poorly executed painting, whatever the price, it's too much. The best works, even overpriced, have the potential to bring unimagined returns.

So is there a bubble? Are these prices dangerous? These were the questions circulating on social media accounts of the art world cognoscenti. Some are worried that China is repeating the experience of Japan in the 1980s where the whole art market went belly-up.

The frequent renewal of record prices poses the question "Where does this train stop?" In fact, there is always someone ready to pay more. As long as the Chinese economy keeps booming, and China continues to produce wealth, the magic won't end. The Japanese companies who snapped up French impressionists in the 1980s ran into a financial crisis and had to offload them at fire-sale prices. The Chinese art market has seen long continuous growth. Huge sums enter the market. The new buyer brings new capital.

Artists like Qi Baishi, Xu Beihong and Zhang Daqian are considered to be market indicators. That is why it is in most people's interest that their prices continue to soar. Just like the overheating stock and housing markets, the expansion of the art market is due to overflowing capital looking for a safe niche. Housing prices may be the real bubble, and if inflation is looming, it is urgent to find safe harbors for wealth -- in assets that can retain their value. Investing in art is part of a risk management strategy.

But with the art market in such strong expansion, one could ask why Liu Yiqian decided to sell. Is he, deep down, pessimistic about the market? Does he think now is the moment to cash out at the top?

A great painting does not need to stay in one collector's hands forever. Art works find their market price over time by changing hands. In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of important collectors decided to sell their collections through special auctions, propelling the market to new heights. Today, some famous collectors are again releasing their exceptional treasures -- one by one, this time -- and in doing so, heat up the market. Restless capital is looking for sure bets. The art market has a long and prosperous future ahead.

*Director of Academic Research Department, Beijing Bonwin Contemporary Art Investment Company

Read the original version of this article.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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