Contemporary art commerce in the 1990s as an unsettled field
Sungari contemporary art exhibitions-cum-auctions
Institutional innovation
Institutional failure


The first auction dedicated to contemporary art in mainland China was a failure, announced The Art Newspaper. The article entitled “No realistic auction system yet” presented the auction held by Sungari auction house in 1996 as a missed opportunity: “The lack of professionalism on the part of Chinese auctioneers in Beijing last December rendered inconclusive what could have been a very important sounding-post for the state of the contemporary Chinese art market.” (Tang 1997). The title of the article signaled the nascent character of the Chinese contemporary art market. As institutional systems, such as art markets, emerge, some new ways of organizing succeed, and others don’t last. Some firmly stay in the shared memory as watershed moments, while others become mostly forgotten. Yet, this does not mean that they are unimportant or had no impact. These failed and forgotten institutional innovations can give insights into how such institutional systems develop and how they function later on.

The process of development of the infrastructure of art commerce in China is rich with more and less successful innovations. Commerce has become central to the Chinese contemporary art world in the last decades. Yet, although much has been written about contemporary art and the art world in China, with its artists, art dealers, galleries, and museums (e.g. Gladston 2014; Lü 2010a; Wu and Wang 2002; Wu 2014), less academic work exists about the commercial aspects of the art world, or the art market (but see DeBevoise 2014; Joy and Sherry 2004; Kharchenkova 2018, 2019). Understanding who assigns value to, buys, and sells art, and what norms and institutions guide them, is crucial if one wants to make sense of the context in which Chinese artists work, of Chinese artists’ careers, and of how the aesthetic and commercial values of art have been determined.

This paper zooms in on a failed institutional experiment: the first exhibitions-cum-auctions dedicated to contemporary art, conducted by Sungari International Auction Co., Ltd. (中商盛佳国际拍卖有限公司) in 1996 and 1997. These events had a lot of potential to become a success. They were organized by Liu Ting (刘亭)[1], daughter of Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇), former president of the People’s Republic of China, and by Leng Lin (冷林), now one of the central figures in China’s art world. Many others who were involved – artists, art dealers, curators, collectors – are now also among the most well-known names in the Chinese contemporary art scene. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the events failed. During my long-term fieldwork in China, I found that these events were not part of the shared memory of how the local art market had been developing. None of my interlocutors brought them up on their own; indeed, they were mostly forgotten. This is in stark contrast to Sotheby’s auction of Asian contemporary art in New York, in 2006, at which Zhang Xiaogang’s work “Bloodline Series: Comrade No. 120” sold for almost a million USD (USD 979,200), more than twice the Sotheby’s highest estimate (Vogel 2006). The Sotheby’s sale is perceived as signaling the beginning of the golden era of the art market in China (even if this golden era didn’t last long).

The combination of contemporary art exhibitions and auctions was never replicated, neither by Sungari nor by other Chinese auction houses. And while Sungari auction house does currently trade in contemporary art, their main focus has been on traditional art and antiques. The fact that these events failed is exactly why they are worth taking a closer look at. They constitute a good case of experimentation and failure in the context of the emerging Chinese art market. To understand the history of the Chinese contemporary art market, it is important not only to study success stories, but also to study experiments and failed attempts to establish a commercial space for art, and to understand why they failed. To do this, I turn to the 1990s, a crucial decade when it comes to art commerce in China, as it was a period of institutional experimentation and innovation.

This paper is based on interviews that I conducted in 2012–2018 with art dealers, artists, curators, and other participants of the art scene in China in the 1990s, as well as on archival materials available at the National Library of China (Beijing) and Asia Art Archive (Hong Kong). These were comprised of articles published in general and specialized art media, invitations to art events, and other materials. Art created in China since the late 1970s includes art in the traditional styles of Chinese painting and calligraphy, socialist realism, and so-called “contemporary art” (当代艺术), which is relatively new in China (see Wu 2014, p. 10). In this paper I focus on the latter, because although all three types of art were marketized during the reform era since the late 1970s, the history of commerce partly differs. Different persons and partly different organizations have been involved in selling, promoting, and buying them, and they followed distinct norms in doing so.

In what follows, I will first sketch the salient aspects of the emerging art market in China in the 1990s. I will then describe the context and characteristics of the innovative institutions: Sungari exhibitions-cum-auctions. Finally, I will explain why they failed and why they are important.

Contemporary art commerce in the 1990s as an unsettled field

The decade of the 1990s is crucial to understanding commercialization and the dynamics of innovation and failure in the emerging Chinese art market. After Deng Xiaoping’s (邓小平) Southern Tour in 1992, market reforms were reintroduced and started gaining pace. The conditions to establish organizations for art commerce were emerging, and the numbers of wealthy people who could potentially consume art were growing. At the same time, the 1990s was the time when the first contemporary art market events and organizations were being set up in mainland China. Chinese contemporary artists were exhibiting in China and receiving recognition abroad as they participated in highly prestigious international shows, such as the Venice Biennale and Sao Paolo Biennale, from 1993 onwards (Gao 2011; Kharchenkova and Velthuis 2015).

The 1990s is bracketed on both sides by major events that had direct consequences for the Chinese contemporary art world. The tragedy of Tiananmen in 1989 strongly impacted the artistic community and their activities, hampering organization of contemporary art exhibitions in mainland China for several years. This was in stark contrast to the 1980s, when exhibitions flourished (Sullivan 1999). In the same year, 1989, Chinese artists were for the first time included in a major international exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre” at the Centre Pompidou and Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris, after which other international shows followed (Erickson 2002). The 2000s again brought about major changes. The Shanghai Biennale in 2000 included contemporary art forms such as installations, videos, photography, conceptual art and, as the art historian and curator Wu Hung (2014, p. 11) writes, “signaled the official acceptance of contemporary art forms” in China. The 798 Art District started developing in Beijing in the early 2000s, first as a concentration of studios, and later of commercial galleries and other organizations. Chinese artists fetched sky-high auction results, and both international and Chinese art scenes witnessed an art market boom from the mid-2000s onwards.

The 1990s occupies an intermediary space between the idealistic 1980s and the highly marketized 2000s. Nostalgia often shines through when Chinese artists recall the 1980s, which is fondly remembered as a period of pure art and relative artistic freedom [2]. Studies show that while commercialization of art was underway in the 1980s, few dedicated contemporary art market institutions existed (DeBevoise 2014). Artists and critics also reminisce about the 1990s as an innocent time, unmarred by commerce. An established Chinese curator and art critic compared the 1990s and the early 2010s in an interview:

“Take, for example, the 1990s. That was an exhibition era, scholarship era. And starting from 2005–2006, this period of the quick development of finance, artists have completely despised scholarship, they sell art, they think they don’t rely on others. So now artists don’t go out, they stay at home. They used to get together often, drink, talk, all that. Now nobody gets together, it’s over, and even when they meet, they don’t really talk. This is also, they despise or envy each other. In fact, materialism, money and commerce made this collective unconscious of the 1990s crumble. So I think today artists all compare if they sell more than so-and-so. Actually, what’s behind it is that it’s not that artists are like this, it’s the power of capital that destroyed this artistic coherence. This is a very prominent phenomenon. I’ll give you an example. In the 1990s, you gave people a [phone] call, “today we have an exhibition”, and everyone came! If I call today, nobody comes. And they think they are great. They sit inside and think, I’m going to come, I’m going to make an appearance. They think they are stars! This is a very sad thing about today’s Chinese art and culture.”  

He further claims that there was a sense of artistic community and no market in the decade of the 1990s: “In the 1990s, there was no art market, so most people exhibited and sold artworks abroad. But today the market is rather large in China.” The image of the 1990s as a time relatively free of commerce was echoed in other interviews. As an artist told me, until the early 2000s, “we cannot call it ‘market’.” A European-born curator who has been active in China since the 1990s, said: “I mean there were some times back in the nineties when there was no art market here …” As Gallerist Meg Maggio, who was actively involved in the Beijing contemporary art scene in the 1990s, and continues to run a gallery in the city, said about the late 1980s and early 1990s: “these were very nice non-commercial years” (Dickie 2014).

This retrospective image is confirmed by the media published at the time. When it comes to references to commerce in the important mainland Chinese contemporary art publications from the 1990s, such as Jiangsu Pictorial (江苏画刊), contemporary art is clearly overshadowed by antiques and traditional art. For example, detailed tables of auction results for traditional Chinese paintings were published, whereas Chinese contemporary art was hardly mentioned in the context of commerce. However, the market for contemporary art was in fact already emerging, as art fairs, commercial galleries, and auction houses were being established in China in the 1990s.

The contemporary art commerce constituted what sociologists Fligstein and McAdam (2012) would call an “unsettled field,” where the “rules of the game” were not yet agreed upon, and where institutional experiments took place. A developed system, or a stable established field is characterized by a clear understanding of who the participants are: such a field has a number of relatively fixed actors “whose roles and comparative status/power are consensually defined by others” active in same the field (Fligstein and McAdam 2012: 88). In contrast, the participants of the contemporary Chinese market in the 1990s were not specialized, and there was little agreement about who had power and status, partly because many had only recently become involved in the scene. Among the exceptions are art critic Li Xianting (栗宪庭) and art scholar Hans van Dijk, who were among the respected and central figures. But it is hard to say if there was consensus about their roles, since many in this developing market wore multiple hats. According to my interviews, Hans van Dijk, for example, was not only an art scholar, but also a curator, consultant, conduit, gallerist, and friend to artists.

The “rules” that govern interactions of those who were involved in art commerce in China were not yet established. Those who founded some of the first organizations relied on foreign templates. For example, the first auction houses and galleries were based on foreign models. The models were, however, not emulated completely (Kharchenkova 2019). Moreover, there was a lot of uncertainty about the “rules” and about roles that market participants were supposed to play in these new organizations. The places where contemporary art exhibitions were held, where art would be for sale, were temporary. Red Gate Gallery, established in 1991, operated from the lobby of the China World Hotel in central Beijing, where a desk was set up, but also from the founder’s kitchen, and from the Ming Dynasty Watchtower – a fortification that was part of Beijing’s old city wall. Hans van Dijk, who established New Amsterdam Art Consultancy in Beijing in 1994 had an office in his apartment, and could only rent exhibition spaces for short periods of time. His exhibitions in Beijing took place at Hanmo Art Center, the Ammonal Gallery, Yanhuang Art Museum, Beijing International Art Palace, and other places, and his letters reveal that he worried whether he could exhibit at a particular location again, or why the cooperation stopped (Brouwer 2018). ShanghART gallery was established in 1996, and after organizing several exhibitions and projects in various places, it found its first stable location in the lobby of the Portman Shangri-La Hotel in Shanghai. Not only locations, but also sales were not guaranteed. Art was often for sale, but in the 1990s it was rarely sold, according to my interviews with those who worked in the commercial galleries at the time.

When the commercial contemporary art galleries started appearing, many of their founders and employees had little knowledge about how to run these organizations. Artists and commercial galleries did not share a common understanding about how to work together. According to Weng Ling (翁菱), who ran CAFA gallery (中央美院画廊), “At the time [in the 1990s] we didn’t understand how to professionally run an art space.” Talking about a different gallery active in Beijing in the 1990s, the head of the culture department at one of the embassies in Beijing, deeply involved in the art scene at the time, said:

“Management [of the gallery] changed all the time, it was just one big mess, chaos. And the artists told [me that] the artworks were sold but they never got the money, they gave money for an exhibition, and never … Really the most bizarre stories.”

The infrastructure of the nascent art market differed from how art commerce was organized internationally. A European collector who first became involved in the Chinese art world in 1994 told me in an interview:

“When it [art commerce] all started in 1994–95, it was a total unorganized system. You went to the artist, you could buy there, then they worked with this gallery, then they worked with that gallery, they had no system, no contracts, no nothing. I thought it was a wonderful time! Hahaha!”

The above quotes show a lack of procedures, and disagreements in the field about what the legitimate practices and norms of behavior were.

Another example of a practice that was not institutionalized, and that was clouded in uncertainty, is price-setting. The China’s New Art, Post-1989 exhibition organized in 1993 in Hong Kong, which was later recognized as a seminal show, travelling to Australia, Canada, and the United States, is a case in point (Kharchenkova and Velthuis 2015). When artists decided on a price for the artworks that would take part in the show, they negotiated with one of the organizers and curators, Johnson Chang, who ran Hanart TZ gallery in Hong Kong, and was well embedded in the international art networks. According to famous art critic Li Xianting, one artist knew to ask for a high price (over 2000 USD), because his foreign wife advised him (personal interview). The price for most other artists’ work, however, was set at several hundred USD. For example, Zhang Xiaogang, who would later become one of the most financially successful Chinese artists, set a price of only 500 USD for a large artwork. This clearly shows that artists were not socialized into how to set an appropriate price in the (early) 1990s, and that no norms existed in China at the time. This lack of norms was also the case for many other practices. It is against this background of an unsettled field, with few fixed roles and agreed-upon rules, that Sungari contemporary art exhibitions-cum-auctions took place.

Sungari contemporary art exhibitions-cum-auctions

When organizing commercial activities in the 1990s, Chinese art world participants in many ways emulated foreign art market institutions (Kharchenkova 2019). However, unique forms of market organization were also created. Some of them did not exist for long. A well-documented example of such a short-lived institutional innovation is the First Guangzhou Biennial Art Fair (中国广州·首届九十年代艺术双年展(油画部分)), organized in 1992 by critic and curator Lü Peng and colleagues [3]. One of the main ways in which it differed from the internationally common manner of organizing art biennales and art fairs was the fact that it combined scholarly elements (art critic committee and awards) with explicitly commercial elements (sales and discourse on art investment) [4]. Although the event was entitled “the first” and “biennial,” it was never organized again, due to financial difficulties (Wang 2013). Less well-documented examples of institutional innovations that did not last are the exhibitions and auctions dedicated to contemporary art organized by Sungari auction house. These events, entitled “Reality: Present and Future” (现实:今天与明天) and “Dream of China” (中国之梦), took place in Beijing in 1996 and 1997, respectively. After that they were discontinued.

Institutional innovation

The exhibitions-cum-auctions were the brainchild of Liu Ting, the founder of Sungari auction house. Sungari was established in 1995, which made it one of China’s earliest auction houses, alongside China Guardian (中国嘉德), Beijing Hanhai (北京瀚海), and Duo Yun Xuan (朵云轩) auction houses. From the start, Sungari focused on antiques and traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy. In the section “About Us” on its website, it currently mentions no contemporary art. Rather, it emphasizes its success in facilitating trade in cultural relics and traditional art, such as a hand-scroll from the Qing imperial court artist Xu Yang (徐扬), which was purchased at Sungari for 134.4 million RMB and “which broke the record of the hammer price of Chinese painting and calligraphy auctions” (

Liu Ting, however, wanted to try to auction contemporary art in 1996. The independent curator Leng Lin was hired to organize the events, according to an interview with a gallerist who has been active in Beijing since the 1990s. Later, Leng Lin would become a central figure in the Beijing art world, as founder of the renowned Beijing Commune (北京公社) art gallery, and director of a leading gallery, Pace Gallery (Beijing), but at the time, he was an independent curator in his early thirties. He had curated, for example, the exhibition “A New Account of Tales in the World” (世说新语) in 1995, which featured young artists and attracted much attention (Qian 2005). Not only Chinese curators and auctioneers participated in the organization. Swiss ambassador Uli Sigg, who was already then an avid collector of Chinese contemporary art, was involved, according to my interviews with those present at the auctions. Court Yard gallery and Century Art Centre were thanked in the 1996 catalogue, which indicates that they also contributed.

By the mid-1990s the concept of auctions was no longer new in mainland China. Art auctions were legalized in post-Mao China in 1991, and the first joint-stock auction company specializing in Chinese art and antiques – China Guardian (中国嘉德) – was founded in 1993. However, the two auctions organized by Sungari in 1996 and 1997 were specific in at least three ways.

First, art that was included in these auctions was exclusively “contemporary.” [5] The term “contemporary art” (当代艺术) was on the front cover of both catalogues, and “contemporary art” was explicitly the focus of all introductory texts in both catalogues. This differs markedly from how such art was previously auctioned. China Guardian auctions included contemporary oil paintings. For instance, artworks by Zhang Xiaogang (张晓刚) and Zhou Chunya (周春芽) were included in its first sale in March 1994. However, the vast majority of artworks auctioned in China in the 1990s were relatively conservative, such as artworks by Chen Yifei (陈逸飞) and Ai Xuan (艾轩), and this is also how China Guardian auctions of oil paintings were perceived. An insider in the contemporary Chinese art world, who was already active in the 1990s told me in an interview:

“… Guardian’s first auctions were good. But they were very conservative. They did an entire decade of, you know, like flowers and whatever.”

Art that appeared at Sungari was different, and the new and distinctive characteristics of the art that was created in China in the 1990s are emphasized in the introductory texts to catalogues that were made to accompany the events. Both catalogues present the exhibitions as an overview of the recent developments in Chinese contemporary art. Hong Kong-based art magazine Orientations characterized artists included in the 1997 exhibition-cum-auction as “many of the nation’s leading contemporary painters” (Dewar 1998). At the same time, the artists were young: the majority were in their early thirties at the time of the auctions. Most artists had previously exhibited work and their work had been published in art magazines. Some of them, such as, for example, Zhao Bandi (赵半狄) and Zeng Fanzhi (曾梵志), had already exhibited at prestigious international venues. Most artists were employed as teachers at art academies, were editors, or stage designers, or had other art-related jobs (47 out of 73 in 1996; and 24 out of 48 in 1997). However, a significant number of artists (26 out of 73 in 1996; 24 out of 48 in 1997) were referred to in the catalogues as “currently free artist,” [6] which means that they were independent of the system of official art institutions and not employed, for example, as teachers at an art academy. The exhibitions-cum-auctions were thus relatively edgy, presuming a taste that differed from the less innovative art consecrated in the bureaucratic art system of officially acknowledged, government-run museums and other display spaces.  

Second, the events combined an exhibition and an auction, scholarship and commerce. All art auctions involve some level of scholarly work, for example, in order to determine the authenticity of artworks and to set price estimates. In the case of Sungari exhibitions-cum-auctions the scholarly elements were much more present, and the goal of scholarship was more long-term than merely facilitating the upcoming sale.

The exhibitions differed from the format of the auction preview, which is meant for potential buyers to select artworks they plan to bid on, and which is common now for auctions in China, as well as internationally. The works were first exhibited at semipublic galleries (Wu 2002), and then auctioned on the third day [7]. These galleries were not commercial spaces. The 1996 event took place in the Art Gallery of Beijing International Art Palace (北京国际艺苑美术馆), at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza Hotel. The 1997 event took place at Yanhuang Art Museum (北京炎黄艺术馆), which was a private institution founded by an artist in 1991 and which was affiliated with an official institution, “first with Beijing’s Municipal Bureau of Cultural Relics and then with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference” (Wu 2002). These events were organized by independent “curators,” which was a new professional identity in the 1990s, even though some of the same people had already organized contemporary art exhibitions in the 1980s (Wu 2002). Apart from Leng Lin, who was presented in both catalogues as “General Curator,” Feng Boyi (冯博一), a renowned independent curator and critic, then in his thirties, was among the curators.

Both catalogues are reminiscent of exhibition catalogues rather than auction catalogues. They start with introductory texts by the organizers, which have a primarily academic rather than commercial orientation. They focus on, for example, the relationship between Chinese and “Western” art, and on how the art of the 1990s reflected contemporary culture. These are followed by an “index”: a list of artists, whose names are presented in both Chinese characters and Latin transcription. The 1996 catalogue divided artworks into six sections, as if it were a group show, entitled New Theatre, New Reality; Style of Metropolis; Attitude of Distance; Microscope; Expression of Periphery; and Nothing but Me. The catalogues are printed on thick glossy paper and contain large, color, quality illustrations of the artworks, mostly one artwork per page. Next to illustrations, one finds the name of the author, title, size, materials, and year, in Chinese and English. There are also short descriptions of the content of the artworks, in Chinese (1996) and in Chinese and English (1997). Both catalogues end with a bilingual list of artists, with information including their year and place of birth, education, current job, past exhibitions, publications, and in some cases, collections to which an artist’s work belongs. The 1997 catalogue, unlike the 1996 catalogue, has an ISBN number and price (RMB 150) printed on the back cover; and the name of the publishing house, China Today Publisher (今日中国出版社), stated on the front cover. It is not clear, however, if the two catalogues were actually sold, or were given out for free. Although from news reports it transpires that price estimates existed (Dewar 1997; Dewar 1998; Tang 1997), they were not listed in the catalogues. 

On the other hand, the events were not purely scholarly; commerce was also explicitly discussed in some of the introductory texts. Thus, Liu Ting wrote in the 1996 catalogue:

“At present in China where a commodity economy is taking shape to build a market for artistic works that can represent the highest level of present time has become the most concerned issue in the cultural circles. The exhibition “Reality: Present and Future – ’96 Contemporary Art in China” is held by the Sungari International Auction Co. Ltd. for this purpose. Today artists and critics alike are striving to explore the cultural environment and the future of mankind in a more profound way. Their achievements can cause extensive repercussions in society and arouse a sense of responsibility in those who are concerned with the cultural cause of our time. The exhibition and sale of works display such a sense of responsibility for placing the contemporary art in the market.”

This quote indicates a more general purpose than merely the upcoming sale, namely, developing the market for contemporary art. The participants of the art world in China recognized that the two Sungari events combined curatorial and commercial aims and approaches. According to curator and art critic Karen Smith, who was active in the art scene at the time, Liu Ting

“had some understanding of the market abroad, she’d lived abroad and Leng Lin, you know, produced this, but you know, in a very scholarly way. […] Leng Lin was trying to show, you have to have everything. You have to have the scholarship, you have to select the works, and then you can build the market.” 

The idea behind the Sungari events was not purely the auctioning of artworks, but also introducing contemporary art to the market, and establishing the contemporary art market in China more generally. This goal, and the combination of scholarship and commerce, resemble the set-up of the First Guangzhou Biennial Art Fair (1992). In the 1990s in China, curators were involved in overtly commercial activities, creating market awareness and taking concrete measures to construct a market for contemporary art (Wu and Wang 2002). Sungari exhibitions-cum-auctions fit well into that environment.  

The third way in which the two Sungari events were innovative was the manner in which cooperation with artists was organized. At the time in China it was common for auction houses to approach artists directly. Internationally, however, auctions are involved in the secondary (resale) market; they work with dealers and collectors and avoid engaging directly with artists. Internationally, artists do not normally attend auctions and do not consign their works to auctions, with the exceptions of charity auctions. In contrast, Sungari invited artists to submit their works for the 1996 events. Even more unusually, artists had to pay a catalogue fee (Tang 1997) [8]. At least some of the artists attended Sungari exhibitions-cum-auctions in person. As I will explain below, artists’ willingness to get involved was at least partly due to the auctions’ novelty.

The 1996 auction comprised 74 lots, and the 1997 auction comprised 48 lots [9]. They included, among other things, paintings, silk screens, prints, and sculptures. While it is unclear if all the lots came directly from artists, it is likely that many of them did, because the artworks were all recent, mostly from the same year as the auction or the preceding year (see Figure 1). 


The 1996 exhibition-cum-auction

The 1997 exhibition-cum-auction

























Figure 1. Years in which artworks were made, according to the catalogues.


Moreover, some artworks were made especially for the Sungari exhibition-cum-auction, like Wang Jin’s A Chinese Dream, a “fake” Peking Opera costume, printed on the back cover of the catalogue (in the 1997 catalogue: lot 40, China, The World of Mortals) (Wu 2000a). While making an artwork specifically for an exhibition is common both in China and internationally, doing so for an auction is not.

Institutional failure

This institutional innovation failed, as the Sungari exhibitions-cum-auctions were discontinued after two years. Why did it fail? One potential reason could be a low degree of professionalization. From the media reports, it transpires that the events did not run smoothly, presumably due to a lack of experience. Concerning the 1996 auction, Orientations reported: “The start of the sale was delayed as scores of people waited for extra seating to be arranged in the hall, and then it was announced that the two major attractions had been withdrawn: Fang Lijun’s woodcut 1996 No 16B (lot 32; unpublished estimate) and China: China, a portrait of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin by Ma Baozhong (lot 2; estimate RMB 110/120,000).” (Dewar 1997). The article highlights the ad hoc and disorganized character of the event. The Art Newspaper reported that sixteen works remained unsold during the auction in 1996 even though they attained prices higher than the estimates (Tang 1997). The author speculated that this could be because the reserves were set higher than the price estimates, due to the artists’ inexperience. This again points to insufficient socialization among the involved parties regarding price-setting, among other things. However, a lack of professionalization does not have to lead to institutional failure, as some innovations stick and endure in emerging markets.

Another potential reason for the failure of institutional experiments in China is political. After all, the events concerned contemporary art, which was not supported by the state, and many exhibitions in the 1990s were cancelled because of the involvement of the authorities (see, e.g. Wu 2000b). However, due to the political status of its founder, Sungari did not have much to worry about. Indeed, there are no indications that politics or censorship played a direct role in the discontinuation of the events.

A third potential reason could be that the artists decried the idea of participation. However, there is ample evidence that artists gladly collaborated with Sungari. When I asked Meg Maggio how the local art world reacted to the Sungari auctions, she responded:

“Curious. Curious. You know, we went, we watched, it was kind of exciting. Like ho, an auction, it was kind of … It wasn't earth-shattering. It was more a question of curiosity and another social event in the art world.”

The artists were not deterred by the idea of coming in direct contact with commerce. As Maggio said in an interview, “They were just curious. Is this going to work or not? You know.” Karen Smith in an interview echoes the same experimental attitude. According to her, artists did not mind art being sold in this public commercial way,

“… because at the time there was just no publicity and no kind of audience, you know. You had no way of knowing who was out there, and who might be interested, who was looking, because you didn't have a museum. You were going to the small places here today, there tomorrow, it’s a word of mouth, it’s a handful of people who come, and you have no way to gauge the impact that you are having whatsoever. There’s no magazines to write about it. Maybe that’d be a little report in the one or two magazines, like Jiangsu Pictorial, you know, of things like this that were very important, but it’s a very minimal and delayed response all the time to what you are doing. And artists, they need affirmation, they need to know from somebody, to know that what they are doing is interesting, so this is really … yeah.”

An article in Orientations also reported on this curiosity among the art world participants: “Several months after the event, Sungari’s later exhibition and sale of Chinese avant garde art is still the major topic of conversation in Beijing art circles. […] The event attracted enormous attention from the public, the media and the artists themselves, who were more than curious to see how their works fared with price tags equal to those in the international market” (Dewar 1997). While “enormous attention” is likely an exaggeration, the above quotes show that art world insiders did not actively resist and, on the contrary, even welcomed the events.

The main reason for the failure was a lack of buyers. Ample evidence from the media and from interviews that I conducted indicate that few people were interested in acquiring contemporary art in China. According to my interviewees, buyers of contemporary art in the 1980s and 1990s were mostly foreign. A Chinese national who ran a gallery in the 1990s and early 2000s said:

“In China there was also a very small number of people who liked contemporary art, the more cosmopolitan group. But mostly those were these internationals. I knew all the ambassadors really well.”

Many buyers were foreign diplomats and foreign correspondents, and also scholars and foreigners employed at Chinese offices of foreign companies. Those who worked at Beijing galleries in the 1990s claim that it was difficult to make sales. This is telling seeing that the circumstances in Beijing were relatively favorable compared with other Chinese cities. For example, Orientations reported that an option was considered to move a more contemporary part of the 1995 edition of China Art Expo from the southern city of Guangzhou to Beijing, because those interested in contemporary art, notably foreigners, were primarily concentrated in the north of the country (Dewar 1995). At the time, a large wealthy target group of collectors of contemporary art did not exist in China, because contemporary art was not widely known.

This context impacted the Sungari events. A significant percentage of lots remained unsold. According to Orientations, a little under half of the works found buyers, and bidding was “slow” at the 1996 auction (Dewar 1997). The Art Newspaper estimated the sold figure to be approximately 30% (Tang 1997). In the 1997 auction “half of the Chinese works of art sold, the majority around their estimates” (Dewar 1998). The highest prices were fetched, predictably, by the two artworks that adorned the auction catalogue covers. Zhang Xiaogang’s painting “A Photograph of the Whole Family” and Fang Lijun’s (方力钧) painting “Untitled” fetched USD 12,000 [10] and RMB 462,000 in 1996 and 1997, respectively (Tang 1997; Dewar 1998) [11]. The estimate of “Untitled” was RMB 380,000–400,000 (Dewar 1998), so the work was sold for above its estimate. However, the overall results left much to be desired.

The buyers at the two Sungari auctions were primarily foreigners. As Karen Smith said in an interview,

“… the buyers [at Sungari contemporary auctions] were primarily Uli Sigg. And I bought one painting from the Sungari. And I think maybe Ullens [12] bought a couple. But I think that outside of that there were almost zero buyers.” 

This account is supported by Orientations, which reported on the 1997 auction: “This type of sale still attracts mainly Western buyers, as a local market for such contemporary works has yet to be developed.” (Dewar 1998). The Art Newspaper also wrote that “Most of those bidding were expatriates and overseas Chinese.” (Tang 1997). The organizers must have anticipated this, which is probably why the catalogues are partly bilingual. Presumably, there were not enough buyers to compete. In addition, artists did not have exclusive gallery representation in China, which left many artists free to sell when and to whom they wished. Those interested in buying could then approach artists directly, and perhaps even have a choice of artworks for a lower price.

The participants of the art world confirmed that a lack of buyers was the reason why the auctions were discontinued. Karen Smith said in an interview: “I think they stopped because there were no buyers, if you really look at it. Because there weren’t that many buyers.” In a different interview, Meg Maggio agreed:

“I think it was partly that she [Liu Ting] felt there was no market, she lost interest in that business. She felt it was premature. Her auction company is primarily known for antiques. And they’ve never done since then strong contemporary sales. And I think she felt that the market was not there yet. I think it was a pure business decision, rather than anything else.”

Local interest in contemporary art developed only in the 2000s. This is clear not only from my interviews, but also from the media. For example, Orientations reported that the modern Chinese painting sale, which featured artworks by Zhou Chunya (周春芽) and Liu Xiaodong (刘晓东) and took place in 1999 at Hanhai, one of the other earliest auction houses in Beijing, was weak (Dewar 1999). Local Chinese buyers only got involved in significant numbers in the 2000s, especially starting in the mid 2000s. This happened when many were attracted by the interest in Chinese contemporary art abroad, which manifested in high auction prices (Kharchenkova and Velthuis 2015). Indeed, the auction that has stayed in the common memory concerning the development of the Chinese contemporary art market is an auction of Asian contemporary art at Sotheby’s New York in 2006. It is this auction, and not Sungari, that Chinese curators, critics, art dealers, artists, and others still talk about as a watershed moment.


Previous research on how participants of the Chinese contemporary art market perceive the market nowadays shows that they imagine their market as “young” and “immature” (Kharchenkova 2018). The signs of such “immaturity” in their view are, for example, the fact that the market system is out of balance, with contemporary art museums and independent criticism considered too weak. In the 1990s, the field was even “younger.” There was a lot of experimentation, little professionalization and specialization, and some crucial market actors (buyers) were almost absent. Sungari contemporary art exhibitions-cum-auctions is a good illustration of how these aspects of an unstable field influence institutional experimentation and outcomes. The Sungari events were not intended as an alternative for an international art market system. Rather, it was an experiment that emerged in a specific local context and failed. I have shown how the failure of this particular experiment cannot only be explained by the “lack of professionalism,” as The Art Newspaper suggests (Tang 1997), but rather by the absence of buyers.

Some events are considered seminal for the development of the Chinese contemporary art market in both academic literature and the perceptions of art world participants. These include, for example, the establishment of a commercial gallery dedicated to contemporary art by Brian Wallace (1991), and the triumph of Chinese contemporary art at the Sotheby’s auction in New York (2006). Some events failed, but are nevertheless remembered, such as the First Guangzhou Biennial Art Fair (1992), which is well remembered and researched, at least partly due to the active historical writing of Lü Peng himself (e.g. Lü 2010b, 2013). Some other events have faded from the collective memory. Yet, events like Sungari exhibitions-cum-auctions are significant even though their immediate goals were disappointing, and the events were discontinued. This is because of the path-dependent processes of which they are a part. Leng Lin is now considered a “legendary” art dealer (Artforum 2018), and is currently a partner and Asia president of Pace Gallery, one of the world’s leading contemporary art galleries. Some of those who were in the audience, such as Uli Sigg, Guy Ullens, and Karen Smith, have remained a stable or at least long-term presence in the Chinese contemporary art world, and have had a significant impact as art critics, curators, collectors, and founders of institutions, such as the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards (CCAA), and UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, a leading art center in Beijing. Chinese collector Liu Lan (刘兰), profiled by Christie’s, claims that she was introduced to contemporary art at the 1996 Sungari exhibition and subsequent auction, and started collecting around that time ( 2015). Many participating artists, and definitely those artists whose paintings have adorned catalogue covers, are now among the most well-known names. Even though the events hardly launched their careers, they were part of their career trajectory. Markets do not develop smoothly; this process involves trial and error. Institutional innovations are hit-or-miss. We would do well to remember and research failed institutional experiments, as they are a fundamental part of market development.   


[1] Her former name was Liu Tingting (刘婷婷).

[2] See “Materials for the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art From 1980-1990”.

[3] For more on the First Guangzhou Biennial Art Fair, see DeBevoise 2014; Lü 2010b, 2013; Wang and Ye 1996; Wang 2013.

[4] Creating a market for contemporary art was also an original purpose of the Venice Biennale (Velthuis 2011).

[5] The 1997 sale was officially called “’97 Auction of Contemporary Chinese Art and Works by Modern Western Masters.” In addition to the 48 contemporary lots, the auction included 27 etchings and lithographs made by 19th and 20th century European artists, such as Renoir and Picasso (Dewar 1998). These European works, however, are not included in the catalogue dedicated to contemporary Chinese works. It is noteworthy that contemporary art appears in the context of foreign art, rather than traditional Chinese art. 

[6] The Chinese versions in the catalogues are “现为职业艺术家” and “现为职业画家”, which can literally be translated as “currently professional artist” and “currently professional painter.

[7] The exhibitions were held on 6–8 December 1996 and 31 October–2 November 1997.

[8] It is unclear if this was also the case in 1997.

[9] Five of these 48 lots (#11, #34, #41, #44, #48) include several artworks, made in different years, which is why the total number in the table amounts to 56 rather than 48.

[10] Approximately RMB 100,000 according to the 1996 exchange rate.

[11] The average disposable income in urban China (per person) was RMB 5,160 in 1997, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

[12] Guy Ullens is a Belgian art collector, who played a crucial role in the emerging mainland Chinese contemporary art scene as one of the leading collectors of Chinese contemporary art and the founder of UCCA, one of the important institutions in Beijing.


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This research was possible due to the generous grant from the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Part of the data was collected during my PhD research, which was part of Olav Velthuis’ VIDI grant awarded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. I am grateful to Anna Grasskamp and Lin Fan for their valuable feedback and to Jane DeBevoise, Anthony Yung and their colleagues at the Asia Art Archive for various support.

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