China appetite for pricey contemporary art 'suddenly evaporates'

Paris (AFP) - A cooling national economy has apparently decimated China's appetite for high-priced contemporary art, according to the latest figures from Artprice, an outfit which compiles art market data.

The amount of money raised in auctions in China in the 12 months to June slumped a dramatic 37 percent, bringing the global market down 12 percent, Artprice said in its most recent report obtained by AFP ahead of public release.

Worldwide, $1.76 billion (1.57 billion euros) were raised from contemporary art sales, with more than a third -- $650 million -- generated in the United States, essentially in New York, "which is definitely the epicentre of the very high range" works, Artprice founder Thierry Ehrmann said.

China, which until this year held the top spot for art auctions, was in second place with $542 million in sales.

Britain, with $410 million but climbing rapidly in the rankings, looked poised to soon overtake it.

China's decline was seen as a consequence of its slowing economy, which has contributed to a crash in commodity prices worldwide. An anti-corruption campaign by Beijing was also seen as prompting Chinese billionaires to become less showy.

The Artprice report also showed that the top living contemporary artist in the United States is no longer Jeff Koons, but Christopher Wool, whose works -- the best known of which feature stencilled-letter phrases squeezed together -- are now fetching twice what they were a year earlier.

While contemporary art auctions can hit stratospheric numbers north of $10 million per work, there is still scope for buyers with shallower pockets to get a piece of the action.

According to Ehrmann, "64 percent of sales through auction are lots going for less than $5,000".

Even though contemporary art represents just 13 percent of the overall art market, "it is now an engine for the world art market" because of heightened demand by a growing number of museums, he said.