Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist and activist, creates politically charged works in a range of media, challenging authority and highlighting issues of human rights and social justice. If you’re looking for original Ai Weiwei prints and editions for sale or would like to sell, request a complimentary valuation and browse our network’s most in-demand works.

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Ai Weiwei is a renowned Chinese contemporary artist, political activist, and architect, born on August 28, 1957, in Beijing, China. Hailing from an influential and creative family, his father, Ai Qing, was a renowned poet who suffered political persecution under Mao Zedong's regime.

Ai Weiwei's versatile and thought-provoking artistic practice spans across various mediums such as sculpture, installation, photography, film, and architecture. His works often challenge the status quo, addressing social, cultural, and political issues, both in China and globally.

Ai Weiwei’s Childhood: The Making of a Vocal Political Artist

Though born in Beijing in 1957, Ai Weiwei's family was moved to an isolated province of North-West China when the future artist-activist was just one year old. His family was sent to labour camps and exile due to his father's denunciation, as a result of his close relationship with the noted poet and political figure. Growing up in this state, Ai Weiwei experienced a tumultuous childhood, witnessing first-hand the gruelling labour of camp prisoners, the lack of education, and the struggle to make ends meet - all the product of a repressive Chinese government that censored political dissent on the harshest terms.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the Ai family returned to Beijing, and Ai Weiwei began his artistic journey. He enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, where he studied animation and co-founded the avant-garde “Stars” art group, which marked the beginning of the contemporary Chinese art movement.

In 1981, Ai Weiwei moved to the United States to immerse himself in the burgeoning art scene. He studied at Parsons School of Design in New York City and was deeply influenced by the works of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. During this time, he also developed a keen interest in photography, documenting street life and art events through his lens, and began creating conceptual art. Ai Weiwei returned to China in 1993 due to his father's ill health, and he continued to develop his artistic career there.

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 A photograph of twelve bronze sculpted heads arranged in three rows, with four animals in each row. The sculptures represent the figures of the Chinese zodiac. From the top left corner, the animals are: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.

Image © Phillips / Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads © Ai WeiWei 2010

1. £3.4M for Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads

The Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2010) is a remarkable masterpiece that exemplifies the convergence of diverse artistic and cultural influences. Inspired by 18th-century artworks from Beijing's Old Summer Palace, these sculptures were originally commissioned by Emperor Qianlong and brought to life by Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit, to portray the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. The sculptures possess a unique style that reflects the rare coalescence of Sin-European art. The historical context adds to their significance, as the originals were looted during the Second Opium War in the 1860s, leaving only seven out of the original twelve known to exist–five were repatriated to China, but the whereabouts of two is still a mystery. To fill the gaps, Ai WeiWei reimagined the missing pieces through his own interpretation in this prolific work.

This work holds Ai's highest auction record, having been sold for an impressive price of £3,442,500 (fees included) at Phillips in June 2015.

A photograph of twelve polished bronze sculptures placed on brown wood podiums. The sculptures depict the heads of the Chinese zodiac animals, including the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. The sculptures are arranged in an open semi-circle formation.

Image © Phillips / Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads © Ai WeiWei 2010

2. £2.9M for Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads

Ai Weiwei also meticulously crafted sets of Zodiac sculptures using lustrous gold bronze. The inherent intrigue of these pieces is deeply rooted in the unconfirmed status of two original statues, which have been shrouded in a perplexing narrative of disputed ownership and unsuccessful attempts at repatriation. In 2009, the Estate of Yves Saint Laurent, a prominent French fashion designer, consigned two of the sculptures' heads to Christie's Paris, sparking diplomatic tensions with the Chinese Government due to the profound cultural import of the original artworks. Ai Weiwei's reimagining of the complete ensemble of sculptures emerges as a poignant rejoinder to this complex conflict, adeptly questioning the concept of commercialisation while simultaneously making these objects accessible to a wider audience, thus catalysing a discourse on cultural heritage and artistic reinterpretation.

Ai created eight editions of this work, plus four artists' proofs. Three gold bronze sets have sold, first at Phillips in February 2015, realising £2,882,500; again at Phillips in May 2017, realising £2,610,065; and most recently at Sotheby's in November 2019, realising £2,200,437. All listed prices include fees and secure positions in Ai's top-ten selling works.

 A wooden sculpture representing the shape of the country China when viewed from above.

Image © Sotheby's / Map of China © Ai WeiWei 2009

3. £1.7M for Ai Weiwei's Map Of China

The Map of China (2008-2009) is crafted from reclaimed wood sourced from Qing Dynasty Temple ruins. Standing at an impressive height of 100 centimetres, this artwork adeptly depicts the geographical boundaries of China through a tree emerging from the ground. When viewed from above, the skilful arrangement of repurposed wood fragments forms the country's landmass, encapsulating a profound metaphor that encompasses China's historical legacy and contemporary realities. It serves as a poignant tribute to past losses and the transformative practices of the present.

Ai WeiWei's artwork demonstrates a compelling interplay between Western and traditional Chinese influences, a recurring theme in his work. The Map of China has garnered consistent attention in various dimensions, achieving noteworthy sales across various auction houses. The pictured artwork sold at Christie's in May 2016 for £1,744,784 (fees included). One year later, the same artwork was sold at Phillips London, fetching a six-figure price of £789,000 (fees included). Two other editions, one in smaller dimensions, surfaced in the Asian art market selling at Sotheby's Hong Kong in October 2015, realising £1,007,466 (fees included) and in April 2014, realising £702,770 (fees included). All four sales have secured prominent positions among Ai s top-ten selling works.

Three black and white photographs capturing artist Ai WeiWei standing against a brick wall. In each photo, he holds a Chinese urn, subsequently dropping it, resulting in the urn shattering on the ground.

Image © Sotheby's / Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (失手) © Ai WeiWei 1995-2004