The high-end art market is, unsurprisingly, still largely dominated by the European greats; Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, and Claude Monet.
But in the last 15 years, Picasso was twice knocked off the top spot as the world’s top selling artist, dethroned first by Andy Warhol in 2007, and then again in 2011 by two Chinese artists lesser known in the western world—Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi.
Zhang is one of the most prestigious Chinese artist of the twentieth century. Born in 1899, he pursued painting as a child and would go on to be heavily influenced by abstract expressionism. Qi is another prominent contemporary Chinese painter, who is best known for his work featuring flowers, trees, and small animals.
Though household names in China, Zhang and Qi went relatively unnoticed elsewhere—until 2011, when the art world experienced a big shakeup. Despite generating a total of more than $320 million in sales, Picasso that year was relegated to third place, after Zhang and Qi generated more than $500 million and $445 million respectively. Sales of those two Chinese artists’ works represented between 4% and 5% of the total global auction market in 2011.
Picasso would return to reign in a spectacular fashion in 2015. His painting, Les femmes d’Alger, set a new world record for the most expensive artwork sold at auction, going for $179 million and dwarfing Zhang’s high point of $34.7 million a year later, and Qi’s $65 million.
China’s presence in the art-auction world has since waned, due in large part to the government’s far-reaching anti-corruption drive and the slowing of the Chinese economy. That said, Zhang and Qi remain are still among a number of artists to turn over $1 billion at auction since 2006, earning them a spot in the top 10 most profitable artists in the last decade.
Chinese art started to make a small comeback last year, with many blowing their estimates away in auctions. A work attributed to Gu Quan, Cinq Cent Luohan, was estimated at $89,296, but ended up selling for $5,469380—61 times its estimated price. Wang Gai’s Landscape and Figures sold for $420,000, 35 times its estimated price of 12,000.