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Art's New Frame Of Reference


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Retired real estate investor Howard Farber had the foresight to start buying contemporary Chinese paintings a decade ago. For years he was alone. Then three years ago prices began to soar. So while everyone else was playing catch-up, Farber also started buying Cuban art, which he thinks is "very undervalued" and deserves attention.

Farber, 64, is out in front of one of the biggest trends in collecting. As the world economy globalizes, the more daring Western art lovers are scouring emerging nations for new work. They favor contemporary art because it doesn't run up against the export restrictions most countries place on historic pieces. Connoisseurs figure the best artists' prices are bound to surge as these nations' economies grow and their newly wealthy elites take up collecting. Moreover, they continue to find artists and niches where prices have room to run. Here's a take on some key markets:

INDIA

Although works by early modernists such as Tyeb Mehta, 81, and F.N. Souza, who died in 2002, have topped $1 million, Indian contemporary art doesn't yet have China's cachet. However, New Delhi-born, New York-based hedge fund manager Rajiv Chaudhri predicts that "in 5 or 10 years Indian and Chinese art will end up in the same place" in terms of their valuation in the West. Both he and New Jersey money manager Umesh Gaur are high on Subodh Gupta, 42, whose paintings, sculptures, and installations explore his rural roots and whose prices range from $90,000 to $150,000. Chaudhri also recommends the paintings and digital constructions of Baiju Parthan, 50, which sell for less than $50,000. Check out Indian artists at the online auction house Saffronart.com.

RUSSIA

The country's nouveau-riche collectors have been driving up prices of the so-called nonconformist artists, who defied Soviet authorities from the early 1950s onward by refusing to paint in the prescribed realist style. On Nov. 27, Violin at the Cemetery, a 1969 painting by Oscar Rabine, 78, sold for $331,000, three times the previous record, at the London auction house MacDougall's. Joanna Vickery, a Russian art expert at Sotheby's (BID), believes the boom is "just beginning." Sotheby's planned Feb. 15 sale of recent Russian art in London will feature a good selection, as well as work by younger artists such as sculptor Andrei Filippov, 47, estimated at under $15,000.

POLAND

The artiste du jour is Piotr Uklanski, 37, whose photo series The Nazis, 164 images of actors dressed in military regalia, topped $1 million at an Oct. 14 Phillips de Pury & Co. auction in New York. One reason for the high price is that Miami collectors Mera and Donald Rubell own a copy of the series (purchased several years ago at a fraction of that price). These days, the Rubells are buying art by Rafal Bujnowski, 32, for under $18,000, and Zbigniew Rogalski, also 32, for under $30,000. Both artists show at Warsaw's Raster Gallery (raster.art.pl).

CUBA

These artists may get a boost from the expected opening up of Cuba after Fidel Castro's demise. But for now, Cuban artists such as Armando Mari?o, 38, who lives in Spain, have little auction history and sell for under $12,000. To learn about this market, pick up a copy of Cuba Avant-garde: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Farber Collection (Harn Museum of Art, $29.95), coming out in March. Also, Farber's pieces will be featured in a show that opens at the University of Florida at Gainesville on May 29.

CHINA

Chinese art is tricky to buy at this point. Artprice.com figures that since Jan. 1, 2004, the auction price of Chinese contemporary art (defined as by artists born after 1945) is up 440%, vs. about 44.6% for the art auction market as a whole. Yet big collectors continue to pay up: London's Charles Saatchi laid out $1.5 million at a Christie's auction in London on Oct. 15 for a painting by Zhang Xiaogang, 48.

New work keeps surfacing. Of 28 Chinese artists being tracked by Vail (Colo.) collector Kent Logan, six still sell for under $30,000. One is Chen Wenling, 37, whose kitschy sculptures range from $5,000 to $20,000. Another is Wu Junyong, 28, whose take on consumerism in China reminds Logan of artist Jeff Koons. Wu Junyong's videos sell for under $10,000, video stills for $1,400, at the Chinese Contemporary Gallery, which is moving from London to New York as of Jan. 25. For an overview of the Chinese scene, check out Mahjong (Hatje Cantz, $68) about the pioneering collection of Swiss publishing executive Uli Sigg.

Whether the art comes from China or elsewhere, emerging-nation collecting is here to stay. Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby's chief honcho in Hong Kong, says: "Great art is often produced in periods of great patronage, and we're in such a period now." Just keep in mind that interest in these markets is frenzied, so it pays to be extra careful before you buy.

By Thane Peterson


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