Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Went to a lowkey art auction at a hotel near the Worker Stadium where serious money changed hands in minutes. In the absence of a reliable stock exchange that everyone trusts, auctions have become a way for the rich here to get richer.

Several large framed paintings and works of calligraphy were displayed off the lobby but most of the art wasn't on show. A projection screen showed the artwork for sale and simultaneous prices in RMB, US$, Hong Kong dollars and Euros that jumped every second.

There were blood-red peaks and winding rivers, Beijing opera figures, graceful women with flowers, baby chickens, aging fishermen and water buffalo but it almost didn't matter. Most of the 150 people in the auditorium (and calling in bids) weren't dealers but individuals buying only to turn around and sell later, an auction organizer said.

The middle-aged man next to me in bad shoes and a neon red cashmere vest was interested in a landscape valued at 42,000 RMB ($5,250). He raised his paper card identifying him as bidder #848 but in seconds the price was more than 55,000 and he was out. Asked how he chose what to buy, he said anything that was reasonably priced with a design that wasn't too “jian dan,” or simple.

The mostly male crowd smelled of cigarette smoke. They constantly jiggled their legs, twirled their pens and tracked the selling price of each painting. For “you qian de ren,” or people with money, you wouldn't pick out any of these big spenders on a Beijing sidewalk.

It was hard to understand the auctioneer's Mandarin monotone, punctuated with sharp and curt qians (1,000) and bais (100) and wans (10,000). A Guilin landscape by Bai Xueshi (b. 1915) started at $62,500. A painting of the Monkey King by Lin Feng Mian started at $150,000. A contemporary oil of a woman with a yellow fan started at $312,500. Smaller paintings by unknown artists started at 20,000 RMB ($2,500).

It was the last day of the Poly International 2005 Autumn Auctions. As I walked out, the man at the front desk gave me his catalog, so now I have my own minature collection.