The value of China's art market, which includes mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, has more than doubled since 2009, making China the world's second-largest art market, behind the United States.
China's billionaire class continues to grow and it is looking to spend its cash surplus. It is looking to diversify its assets but there is a limited amount of investment options. Real estate is overinflated and it has stockpiled gold and diamonds. Now it is looking to art.
Until the 1980, it was illegal to own art, exchange it or inherit it. The Chinese have quickly made up for lost time and are snapping up artwork by well-known contemporary Chinese painters.
The leader of the pack is Qi Baishi. While he is not a well-recognized name in the West, he has become the third-best selling artist in the world at auction. In China, he is a household name, best known for his reflective late pictures of mice, birds and particularly shrimps. The artist owes his place on the list to his work being original, striking and instantly recognizable -- and to his being prolific, ensuring a steady supply of pieces to the market.
According to the art market data organization Art Price, only Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol posted more sales. The appearance of Qi immediately below them, with more than $70 million in sales, says much about the changing shape of the international art market and China's economic boom.
According to Patti Wong, chairwoman of Sotheby's Asia, "Qi features in "every important Chinese collection." She was responsible for the obtaining a record high price of $65 million for one of the artist's works, said to be his largest, in the China Guardian 2011 Spring Auction.
Shelagh Vainker, curator of Chinese art at the Ashmolean, in Oxford, which has the largest collection of 20th-century Chinese paintings in Britain, said that Qi had a broad following based on "the instant visual appeal" of pictures that are often painted in a "light, slightly uplifting way."
Not that he is a lightweight. The pictures "reward deeper contemplation," Vainker said. "The brushwork is very good, and I know some extremely well-educated people in China who would regard him as the No 1 Chinese artist of the 20th century." With limited investment opportunities, experts predict that the Chinese investors together with the new rich will continue to frequent the auction houses and continue to drive sales of contemporary Chinese art.