Zhang Haoming looks like a million dollars. Or, more precisely, half a million, the amount he spent on a recent Saturday afternoon as he strolled around Beijing's funky 798 district, a series of crumbling redbrick factories that house the Chinese capital's largest concentration of art galleries. Appearing at an opening for the painter Yang Shaobin, the 44-year-old millionaire businessman stands out from the crowd of black-clad, ponytailed dealers, critics and artists, more John Travolta than Jasper Johns. His black hair is permed into loose curls that flounce slightly as he walks, his torso covered by a tight, long-sleeved silk shirt decorated with swirling white, brown and black shapes, a large medallion bearing a golden crown clasped around his neck.
As he moves from one gallery to the next, checking on works he has already booked and buying new ones, Zhang is treated like royalty. "That's mine," he says at a photo gallery, pointing to a picture of a man's back that has been painted with a classical Chinese landscape, then to one in which raw meat has been arranged into the shape of Chinese characters. "And that, and that."
Zhang is one of a new breed of Chinese collectors who are helping to turbocharge the contemporary-art scene in China from within. But his competition is not just local. Contemporary Chinese art is currently one of the hottest genres anywhere. In the past 19 months Sotheby's has created a stand-alone modern-Chinese-art division, and Christie's showcases the art alongside such modern masters as Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning. At a Christie's auction in October in New York City, pieces by Chinese painters Li Songsong, Yan Lei and Zhang Xiaogang set record prices. Another Christie's auction in Hong Kong in November broke records again: a 1993 painting by Zhang went for $2.3 million, the most ever paid for a work by a living Chinese artist at international auction.
If the incestuous, trend-conscious world of international art collectors and the hot money of the hundreds of new millionaires that China's boom has created come together, it could push prices for Chinese art to even more dizzying levels. "You are already seeing works that sold for a few thousand dollars being bought for $50,000, $60,000, $70,000," says artist and Beijing gallery director Zhao Gang. "And right now there's no end in sight." He cites the case of Zeng Fanzhi, until recently a relatively unknown artist. "Two years ago, I was selling his work for $10,000 for a large painting. The other day someone offered $200,000, and he refused it as too low!"
The purchase of a large painting by Zhang Xiaogang at an Oct. 15 London auction by British collector Charles Saatchi suggests the tide of interest from overseas will continue to rise. Saatchi paid about $1.5 million for one of the artist's Bloodline series. Still, New York–based collector Larry Warsh believes he got a good deal. "Saatchi is coming in late, but he's important because people follow him," says Warsh, publisher of the magazine Museums and an enthusiastic advocate of contemporary Chinese art. "It will soon prove to be a bargain." Indeed, that prediction may already have come true, given the $2.3 million price tag for the Zhang painting sold at last month's auction in Hong Kong.