By  on September 17, 2007

SHANGHAI — If there was ever any question whether the red-hot market surrounding contemporary Chinese art was fact or fiction, the recently staged art fair ShContemporary put the hype to the test last weekend.

Art galleries are only the latest companies seeking to tap into the growing Chinese market for luxury goods. As the number of millionaires increases, construction from Shanghai to Shenzhen runs amok, expensive restaurants are packed every night and luxury brands open stores even in secondary cities, everyone is hopping onto the train of China's economic boom.

ShContemporary, held from Sept. 6 to 9, was founded by former Art Basel director Lorenzo Rudolf and took over just about every inch of the massive 40,000-square-foot Shanghai Exhibition Center, an ornate, Baroque building built by the Russians in the Fifties. With more than 100 galleries and ambitions of becoming an Art Basel-esque art world destination, ShContemporary mixed established local galleries such as Contrasts and ShanghART with blue-chip names from London and New York, including Marlborough, James Cohan and the Albion Gallery. There also were galleries from Seoul, Taipei and New Delhi.

Days before the fair had officially begun, parties and openings were happening all over Shanghai, further heightening the booming Chinese city's already frenetic atmosphere. Two days before the opening, the fair's artistic director, Pierre Huber, hosted a cocktail party for exhibitors at Glamour Bar, located on Shanghai's historic riverfront district, the Bund.

On opening night, Contrasts Gallery owner and socialite Pearl Lam threw a dinner for 250 guests, a lavish affair that included drag performers and where dinner wasn't served until around midnight. [For more about Lam, see sidebar.] Guests included Chinese socialite Bao Bao Wan, Shanghai Tang creative director Joanne Ooi and Miami developer Craig Robins, a major collector who was instrumental in giving life to Art Basel Miami Beach and recently, Design Miami. "I love it here in Shanghai," Robins said just before heading up to dinner. "I'm here in China just about every month."

During the fair, exhibitors were treated to a host of openings at 50 Moganshan Lu, the warehouse district of galleries that is Shanghai's current gallery epicenter, and a performance at a local club by the Chinese rock band Second Hand Rose, sponsored by Beijing Art Now Gallery. On Sept. 7, Hermès hosted a party at the Shanghai Art Museum to unveil "Tales of the Silk," an exhibition about the silk trade in China, featuring scarves designed by Chinese artist Ding Yi, products the luxury goods house will be carrying only in China.At the fair, most gallerists reported a healthy amount of traffic, with a large number of Asian collectors from Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan. Many gallerists noted the strong presence of collectors from South Korea. "The rhythm of the fair has been quite bizarre," noted Elena Bonanno di Linguaglossa of London's Albion Gallery. "Usually you have collectors in the first few days and they snap up everything, but it hasn't been quite like that here."

The fair included a large stand for the auction house Phillips de Pury, which was preparing for a major auction of the Howard Farber collection of Chinese art next month in London. "It's been a great place for networking," said Jean-Michel Placent, Phillips de Pury's worldwide director of private sales. The stand showcased only a small selection of works from the collection, including pieces from Ai Weiwei and Wang Guangyi — none of which are for sale until the auction, which is expected to fetch anywhere from $7 million to $10 million.

The Albion Gallery brought its stable of Asian artists, including Hiroshi Sugimoto, Mariko Mori and Xu Bing, all of whom are quite established. Its approach was the opposite of other Western galleries, many of which didn't focus on Asian art at all. "We made a clear decision to bring our best artists to China," said Jutta Nixdorf, director of de Pury & Luxembourg in Zurich, which showed a Charlotte Rampling portrait by Helmut Newton and several pieces by rising Chinese-American art star Terence Koh. "We came here because it's been a priority for us to get a grip on the Asian market," said Nixdorf.

Galleries said most of the artworks sold were priced in the five-figures, although a few reported sales in the six- and seven-figure range. At James Cohan, a large mixed-media piece by Nam June Paik, "From Neader Valley to Silicon Valley," went in the mid-$400,000 range, while Tokyo's SCAI The Bathhouse said it sold Anish Kapoor's "Parabolic Mirror — Tamekuro" in the mid-$500,000 range. New York dealer Max Lang, who had on offer a selection of Pop Art as well as a Jean-Michel Basquiat piece priced at $9 million, reported the sale of Tom Wesselmann's "Sunset Nude, CD 87," which had an asking price of $1.2 million.Lorenz Helbling, director of ShanghART, the longest-running contemporary gallery in Shanghai, summed it up best: "For many people, China was a very abstract thing before. It used to take a year or two just to get the proper contacts, but with the fair, you can court major collectors in the course of one or two days. It's still an early stage for a lot of things, but the fair looks good, and the galleries are selling. Educating the public on contemporary art is important here; museums do it, but not enough. So galleries have to do it, and art fairs have to do it."

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