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The auction is a dominant actor in the market for Chinese contemporary art, both in mainland China and beyond. In response to the prevailing academic focus on other actors, such as art critics, curators, and commercial galleries, Anita Archer places auctions at the center of her book Chinese Contemporary Art in the Global Auction Market and details the role of auctions in the development of the Chinese contemporary art market outside mainland China.
The book is structured chronologically around six key auctions held at Christie's and Sotheby's in Hong Kong, London, and New York between 1998 and 2012. These events significantly impacted the symbolic and economic value of Chinese contemporary art, as Archer claims. Through them, the book traces the dominant role of auctions in the formation of the international market for Chinese contemporary art. Archer highlights the collaborative role of auction house specialists in a network of art world actors including curators, dealers, and critics whose activities were key in constructing the value of Chinese contemporary art and developing the market for it. Archer also argues that the speculatory behavior of mainly Western buyers was central to the rise of Chinese contemporary art at international auctions.
A significant contribution of the book is that it shifts the focus from artists, gallerists, and art critics, who tend to receive attention in academic literature on contemporary art, especially in art history, to auctions. The scope of the book is ambitious, detailing the rapid rise of Chinese contemporary art at international auctions over more than a decade. It understands the developments through sociological analyses of art worlds by Howard Becker and Pierre Bourdieu.
The book is based on extensive research. The author, herself an auctioneer, primarily relies on published documentary data, including meticulous analysis of auction catalogues, sales material, and articles in English-language arts media. She also conducted a number of interviews with prominent actors in the art world, among them Feng Zhengjie and Philip Tinari. The information is woven together to paint a picture of key individuals, including those who consigned the artworks and who created their symbolic value prior to auction, as well as organizations, events, auction houses' marketing strategies, sales' results, and consequences.
The author describes auction events in great detail, including, for example, how and in what order lots were presented in catalogues. She points out specificities she observed in the case studies, such as the absence of information on the provenance of artworks from the Estella Collection in catalogues from Sotheby's auctions held in Hong Kong and New York in 2008. Color illustrations from internal pages and covers of auction catalogues and marketing brochures supplement the analysis.
The book provides key contextual information about, for example, exhibitions held in commercial galleries and museums in mainland China, Europe and the USA that were integral to the growing awareness and popularity of Chinese contemporary art. The book also features information on prominent foreign buyers of Chinese art and the development of important collections. The monograph thus identifies and offers a comprehensive overview of central art market participants; this is supplemented by short but informative explanatory notes on individuals and organizations in the footnotes.
The main strength of the book lies in the richness of its detail. It pays less attention to the theorization of the mechanisms by which the international market for Chinese contemporary art emerged and why. Future research could offer more analytical explanations that could help us better understand the role of the auction in emerging art markets and the relative cooling of market interest in Chinese contemporary art since 2012 (285). It would also be interesting to learn more about the decision-making processes, motivations, responses, and norms of participants of the auction events analyzed in the book, such as those of mainland Chinese artists, gallerists, and auctioneers.
Archer acknowledges that mainland Chinese auctions are outside the book's scope and suggests three key mainland auction events that could be investigated in the future. Indeed, it is difficult to draw the line between the Chinese contemporary art market inside and outside mainland China, and further analysis of mainland auctions and their roles would be welcome. Especially researching auctions of Beijing Poly and China Guardian would be crucial to gain an understanding of their contribution to the emergence of the market.
The author is herself an art world insider with significant experience as an auctioneer and art consultant, which contributes to the quality of the analysis. Although there are some evaluative instances when she refers to certain decisions as "clever" strategic moves (e.g., 152-153), overall, the voice is neutral with no assessment or judgment. This is a well-written and detailed historical account that reconstructs the arrival of Chinese contemporary art on the international scene through the auction. This is a much-needed intervention that reflects the importance of auction houses in the contemporary art world. It will interest art historians, sociologists, cultural economists, cultural studies scholars, and art market participants.