Over the past five years, Ai's Wei Wei's art market has demonstrated relative consistency, bolstered by his unwavering dedication to pushing artistic boundaries and exploring new frontiers. His multifaceted practice encompasses various mediums, and his works frequently appear in the secondary market. Ai is both an artist and an activist. He is renowned for his provocative and thought-provoking artworks, consistently sparking critical conversations and challenging societal norms, establishing himself as a prominent figure in contemporary art.
Below, we highlight his best-selling pieces, representing the enduring popularity and significance of his artistic contributions.
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.
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.
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.
In February 2016, Sotheby's featured the photographic triptych titled Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1994-2004), which achieved a noteworthy price of £755,000 (fees included). This intricate artwork operates as a mixed-media performative piece, delving into the realm of iconoclasm as indicated by its evocative title. The captured images document Ai WeiWei physically dropping a preserved Han Dynasty Urn, which had withstood the test of time for over two millennia.
The deliberate destruction of this culturally significant artefact serves as a bold critique of the Chinese government's stance, which regards any harm inflicted upon such objects as a punishable offence. In line with Ai's body of work, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn reconstructs fragments of Chinese history—both metaphorically and literally—by provocatively challenging the adaptation of traditional cultural values to contemporary practices. This thought-provoking artwork offers a compelling commentary on the complexities of cultural preservation and the tensions between heritage and societal evolution.
He Xie (2010) by Ai Weiwei derives its name from a Chinese homonym associated with the government's notion of “harmony’’. At the core of this piece are 3,000 porcelain river crabs, which command attention as the central element.
He Xie's creation was deeply influenced by a pivotal event in Ai's life in 2010 when Chinese authorities demolished Ai's working studio in response to his outspoken activism. Before the studio's destruction, it is told that Ai had organised a dinner party and included crabs on the menu. However, due to his subsequent house arrest and eventual 81-day imprisonment, he was unable to attend. These personal experiences within the context of extreme censorship in Chinese society fuel the underlying message of He Xie—a potent critique of human rights. The artwork holds profound relevance and poignant expression, exemplifying Ai's compelling artistic oeuvre and serving as a testament to his resilience and commitment to using his artistic platform as a voice for social and political commentary. He Xie sold at Phillips in October 2018 realising £609,00 (fees included).
Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) (2008-2010), exhibited at Tate Modern in October 2010, is a monumental installation comprising one hundred million hand-crafted porcelain sunflower seeds, weighing a total of ten tonnes and filling the floor of the Turbine Hall. This work represents one of Ai Weiwei's most recognisable and top-selling pieces, as evidenced by Sotheby's sale of 200 kilograms of the seeds in May 2012, realising £484,211 (fees included).
Created in collaboration with artisans in China's renowned porcelain region, Kui Hua Zi exemplifies Ai's exploration of the intersection between Asian and Western cultures, transforming materiality into contemporary art while emphasising cross-cultural significance. Its presence in the secondary market signifies the circulation of material objects celebrating diverse cultures.
($5,660,000 (HKD) )
Ai WeiWei's debut North American retrospective occurred at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington in 2012, where Forever Bicycles (2003) was prominently featured. This early creation by Ai revolves around the cultural context of Forever, a Shanghai bicycle company established in 1940 that catered to middle-class Chinese workers. Over time, societal changes and advancements in technology have led to a decline in the company's popularity, with motorbikes becoming the preferred mode of transportation. Through the intricate weaving of bicycle forks and wheels, Ai showcases his adeptness at merging art historical narratives with the concept of the readymade object.
Forever Bicycles explores themes of mass consumption, technology, and the juxtaposition of the past and future. The artwork's sale for £481,609 (fees included) at Sotheby's Hong Kong in October 2015 resonated strongly with the Asian audience, underscoring the global recognition and appreciation of Ai's thought-provoking oeuvre.
($ 5,120,000 (HKD) )
Regarded as one of Ai WeiWei's intellectually and conceptually stimulating masterpieces, Grapes (2012) is a remarkable fusion of art historical references and Ai's artistic narrative, which intricately intertwines cultural allusions. The artwork embodies Ai's profound grasp of art history while remaining faithful to his distinctive approach. Comprised of twenty-five stools dating back to the Qing Dynasty, Grapes pays homage to China's rich historical backdrop. Through the literal weaving together of these stools, Ai transforms their material function, evoking one of the most iconic bourgeois motifs found in Western painting since the Renaissance—the cluster of grapes. By recontextualising a Chinese historical tradition and an object associated with the middle class, Ai elevates it to symbolise opulence and extravagance.
Grapes sold for £464,282 (fees included) at Sotheby's Hong Kong in April 2016, solidifying its position as one of Ai WeiWei's top-selling works.
Ai WeiWei's Coloured Vases (2006) is a provocative artwork that continues to generate discussions and maintain its position among his top-selling works in the secondary market. The piece involves the utilisation of Han Dynasty vases, onto which Ai has applied a vibrant base coat of paint, accompanied by drip paint, offering a fresh layer of meaning and room for interpretation. Painting these culturally significant vases has been viewed critically by various audiences. While some perceive it as an iconoclastic gesture, dismissing the cultural value attached to the objects, others laud it as a means of cultural intersection and a courageous form of activism challenging censorship.
Throughout his practice, Ai has consistently demonstrated his commitment to liberating beauty and reevaluating the value attributed to objects. The sale of these vases achieved a notable price of £458,500 (fees included) at Sotheby's in October 2014.
($665,000 (USD) )
By pushing the boundaries of protest against the Chinese government and incorporating symbolic references to modern art movements, Ai Weiwei continues his exploration of cultural influences by transforming a Chinese urn in his work Coca-Cola Vase (2011). Retaining traces of the urn's historical significance, Ai ventures into Pop art and interpretively Street art by adorning the vessel with the unmistakable branding of Coca-Cola, a widely recognised symbol in Western culture. This act has been subject to diverse interpretations, with some perceiving it as an iconoclastic gesture that strips the urn of its traditional meaning, precisely in line with Ai's intentions. While not driven by malicious intent, the artwork aims to ignite a conversation about cultural significance, provoking contemplation on the notions of protection, meaning, and interpretation within the context of objects and their evolving significance.
Coca-Cola Vase (2011) is prominent among Ai's top-selling works, realising £418,950 (fees included) at Phillips in November 2014.