What would Christie’s blue-blooded auctioneers do these days without ‘red’ China? It has been strongly rumoured that a Chinese buyer scooped up Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust for the record price of $106 million at a Christie’s auction earlier this month. And last week in Hong Kong the British auction house sold 36 lots for a total of HK$303 million – three times the estimate.
Not only did the event set another record for Chinese artist Chen Yifei’s work, but – for the first time at an Asian sale – Christie’s decided to auction a landmark piece of Western contemporary art. Symbolically enough, it was Andy Warhol’s Mao.
But if richer Chinese are starting to pay big bucks for original masterpieces, down in Dafen the painters view the art market somewhat differently. Dafen is a village in southern China with 800 galleries, 8,000 painters and which sells Rmb1 billion ($146.4 million) of oil paintings per year. It just happens that all of them are fakes.
Zhao Qiyong, for example, has become so famous at copying Van Goghs that Dutch TV has made a documentary about him. He’ll sell you a reproduction of the Sunflowers or Starry Night for as little as Rmb55 a canvas. Since 1997 he’s painted 80,000 copies of the Dutch artist’s work, and receives orders for around 800 per month.
Dafen village’s art industry was born in 1989 when Huang Jiang arrived from Hong Kong. He had received big orders from Walmart which wanted to sell reproductions of classic art to its US customers. Huang initially lured a dozen artists but the business grew, and grew.
One of his students was Wu Ruiqiu, who soon broke off and set up on his own, having won an order for 400,000 paintings from the US. He recruited 250 artists, and devised an assembly line approach in which he broke a painting down into 10 components, and had each artist concentrate on, say, a tree or the sky. This dramatically improved efficiency, making each copy more consistent too.
Wu has seen his business boom and Huang now has a gallery in Beijing. Huang told Southern Weekly that while orders used to come exclusively from export markets, China’s new homeowning class have become keen buyers of fake-masterpieces too: domestic sales now make up 40% of his demand.
According to Southern Weekly, Dafen’s most frequently copied work is the Mona Lisa; and that’s why the village’s artists chose to produce their own version of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece to adorn the Shenzhen Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. It’s made up of 999 separate pictures by 507 of Dafen’s painters (see photo).
So is the Mona Lisa – courtesy of Dafen’s brushes – the most reproduced painting in history? Possibly in oils; but Philip Pan reckons the honour goes to Mao Zedong Goes to Anyuan, which features the Great Helmsman visiting a coalmine. The author says 900 million copies were printed, “making it perhaps the most reproduced painting in the history of the world.”
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