Zhang Daqian, Qi Baishi top 2011 total art sales ahead of Warhol and Picasso

It's hardly news to anyone paying attention to the collectibles markets that Chinese artworks have been increasing in value, but the latest example of this effect will startle many in the West.

Every year, Artprice lists artists by their overall sales totals - for every painting or other work of art by them which is sold the final price is added to their total. The results have been fairly predictable at the very top for some time: Picasso has been top for 13 years out of 14, pipped only once by Warhol.

 In 2011, that exception was repeated with Warhol beating Picasso… to the third place slot. The top two places were held by Chinese artists: Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi.

This has been threatening to happen for a while. Back in 2009, Qi Baishi was taking third place behind Picasso and Warhol, and in 2010 he was second only to Picasso.

Whilst some in the West will not be familiar with Baishi, his work was not unknown to Picasso himself, who once commented of his rival that he was "the greatest oriental painter", and he is a household name in China.

Long Life Peaceful World Record Qi Baishi
Long Life, Peaceful World - Qi Baishi's record-setting work

As we reported, Qi Baishi had the greatest single art sale of 2011 with a depiction of an eagle on a pine tree Long Life, Peaceful World which sold for $65.5m in June. This set a new record for a contemporary Chinese painting.

If Qi Baishi's success was not completely out of the blue, Zhang Daqian taking the top spot will have surprised many in the art world. None of his works sold in the same league as the Baishi, but a new record was set for the artist at Sotheby's sale of the Mei Yun Tang Collection of Paintings.

There the artist's Lotus and Mandarin Ducks made HK$191m (just under US$24.6m), having been estimated at just HK$15m-20m. The previous record, incidentally, was set in 2010 by a 1968 study of the Austrian Alps which sold for RMB 100.8m (just $14.77m).

Lotus and Mandarin ducks Zhang Daqlian
Lotus and Mandarin Ducks by Zhang Daqian

The Mei Yun Tang collection offered several of his works, which consistently trounced their estimates (indeed the whole collection made the equivalent of US$87m having been first estimated at around US$16m).

This no doubt helped the artist on his way to the remarkable $506.7m set in 2011 whilst Qi Baishi caused sales of $445.1m.

Whilst we expect these Chinese masters to stay at the top of sales totals in years to come, it's important to be clear that the results certainly do not represent a loss of interest in Picasso and Warhol.

Sales of Picasso's work brought $311.6m in 2011, and whilst that may only have brought him fourth place, it eclipses the $121m his works brought in 2009, which brought him first place.

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