The art of celebrity paintings in China

The art of celebrity paintings in China
Zeng Fanzhi and Jack Ma co-created an oil painting, titled Paradise, which sold at Sotheby's for $5.4 million in Hong Kong on Oct 4. Photos provided to China Daily

Famous folks like Jack Ma attract a lot of cash when their paintings are sold at charity auctions. 'Real' painters sometimes are less than thrilled, Deng Zhangyu reports.

E-commerce tycoon Jack Ma shook the nerve of China's art world after his oil painting Paradise, which he created with well-known artist Zeng Fanzhi, sold at Sotheby's for $5.4 million in Hong Kong on Oct 4, the third on the top 10 lots of that night. The first was Japanese painter Kusama Yayoi's work that sold at $7 million.

According to Kevin Ching, CEO of Sotheby's Asia, Ma's painting got more than 30 bids and the final bid was 17 times its original estimated price. All the proceeds went to the Paradise International Foundation, an environmental campaign group supported by Ma and fellow entrepreneurs such as Tencent founder Ma Huateng and movie mogul Wang Zhongjun.

The collective effort depicting the Earth on a circular canvas in blue and white won Ma the nickname of "Ma Liang" on social media after a Chinese folktale figure who can paint things into reality.

In Sotheby's catalog promoting the auction, Ma wrote, "This is my first time to paint, I feel very good". He added that it's for protection of the Earth, oceans, air and water.

Although it's the first time that Ma has painted in oil, it's not his first painting to go on sale.

In 2013, Ma said that if the number of buyers went to his online shopping platform Taobao.com on Dec 12-a day many online shops offer 50 percent discounts for buyers-exceeded 100,000, he would create an ink painting. The final number was nearly 400,000, according to media reports.

Ma fulfilled his promise. His first ink painting of a cloudlike object was auctioned for 2.42 million yuan on Taobao.com on Dec 22. He gave all the money to charity.

A year later, he wrote a piece of calligraphy of two Chinese characters. It was sold at a charity ball for 4.68 million yuan to an entrepreneur from Zhejiang province.

The man who bought Ma's blue-and-white Paradise is Qian Fenglei, a 39-year-old businessman.

On the list of Forbes' philanthropists for 2014, Qian was No 74. He bought a jade Buddha at 20 million yuan in 2012 and an oil painting by Zeng Fanzhi at HK$30 million ($3.87 million) in 2013, both at an annual charity dinner organized by Smile Angel Foundation that helps children with cleft lips.

Zeng Fanzhi's work The Last Supper was sold for $23 million in 2013, setting the auction record for the most expensive piece of modern Asian art.

It's also not the first time he co-created with people from other fields for the purpose of charity. In 2012, he worked with movie director Feng Xiaogang to complete an oil painting together. It sold at Bazaar's charity dinner for 17 million yuan.

Some artists and art critics says on social networks that the high price auctioned for billionaire Ma and artist Zeng's work humiliates China's art world. Ma's works is blamed to be "not as good as" many established artists but they're sold better than well-known artists in auction houses just because of his influence in business.

"Ma got lots of criticism for his works. But for an auction aimed for charity, I don't think the price should be associated with its art value," says Dong Guoqiang, president of the Beijing Council International Auction Company.

Dong says it's difficult to hold a charity auction. Before blaming Ma's artworks, people should think of what they have done for charity, he adds.

Ma is not the first celebrity to paint for charities. Film star Zhao Wei, TV host Ni Ping and movie mogul Wang Zhongjun are among those who have painted for charity.