It was just over a month ago at Sotheby’s London that the already slim 17-lot sale of ultra-contemporary art, known as “The Now,” became even slimmer when it was revealed on the day of the auction that three lots, all paintings by sought-after female artists, had been withdrawn.
These included works by Louise Bonnet, Hilary Pecis, and Emily Mae Smith, with a cumulative estimate range of £440,000 to £660,000 ($560,000 to 840,000). After the sale, observers buzzed about the gap in lots. One said they were “great paintings,” while others spoke of market jitters, and another said they belonged to an Asian collector. After all, the respective markets for all three artists have been on a tear in recent years, with auction results far exceeding estimates.
One collector’s name came up repeatedly, Ding Yixiao a contemporary art collector who goes by “Xiao” and who founded the Xiao Museum of Contemporary Art in Rizhao, in China’s Shandong province. His Instagram feed i packed with images of buzzed-about contemporary names including the aforementioned artists as well as numerous pieces by Javier Calleja, KAWS, Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, and Ed Ruscha.
When Artnet News finally connected with Xiao, he confirmed that the three artworks are his, writing in an Instagram direct message, that he had withdrawn them pre-sale because the market is “bad now” and adding that he still owns them, adding “Well, These are my works, I can do whatever I want to do,” in response to Artnet’s queries about the withdrawals. The Pecis and the Bonnet appear in his previous Instagram posts.
Sotheby’s declined to comment citing client confidentiality.
Just two years ago, it was Xiao himself who was behind the current record auction price of an Emily Mae Smith painting, (2014) that sold for HK$12.4 million ($1.6 million) at Phillips Hong Kong in June 2021, smashing the high estimate of HK$600,000 ($78,000).
Artnet News identified him at the time as “an extremely private deep-pocketed Shanghai-based collector who’s aggressively building a collection fit for a private museum, regardless of the cost.”
According to the report: “Xiao wanted the piece so badly that, a day before the sale, he posted a now-deleted Instagram of with the caption: ‘Plz don’t fight with me tmr for this EMS. We are in LOVE,’ followed by three crying-laughing-squinting emojis.” The Smith painting still appears in several of his Instagram posts including one that read “Welcome to home” posted shortly after the auction.
However, along with Xiao’s confidence in the market for Emily Mae Smith, his relationship with Phillips auction house has also taken a turn for the worse. Phillips declined to comment citing client confidentiality, but sources said Xiao’s business dealings with the house have become so problematic that he is now banned from doing business with the auction house altogether. Friday (August 4) marked a deadline for Xiao to make a payment towards an outstanding balance he allegedly owes Phillips, and sources familiar with the situation confirmed that the payment was not made on time.
Xiao confirmed some of the details but had a different story to tell. “I banned [sic] from Phillip because I’m suing them. They took my works for sale and never paid me money after the sale,” he told Artnet News via direct message. “I will never do business with Phillips again.”
In early May, his attorney wrote letters to Phillips Hong Kong demanding hammer proceeds from sales of seven artworks, one of which failed to sell in an auction and was sold privately and the remainder of which were sold across two auctions. The attorney said that legal proceedings would commence within seven days if the funds were not paid.
A source familiar with the situation said that no legal proceedings have been brought against Phillips by Xiao to date, and that Xiao still owes a sum that exceeds the money he claims he is owed, which is roughly $300,000.
Further, the Xiao Museum is closed until the end of August citing maintenance, according to the museum’s official WeChat account.
Xiao told Artnet that the museum will re-open, and that the next show will be in November. He said the closure is due to an ongoing tax fraud investigation, that he is a victim of a related “scam,” and that he is cooperating with the investigation. He also said he still plans to open another space, which sources said had been slated for Shanghai.
After fielding some questions via direct message, Xiao stopped communicating with Artnet News for this story and referred us to a former associate of the museum. That person declined further comment.
Meanwhile, Xiao’s difficulties with business partners may be spreading. While several art dealers and shippers told Artnet News that they have transacted business and art deals with Xiao without any trouble, more recently sources reported requesting invoices that then went unpaid. One dealer canceled a planned sale after repeated delays, while another that had completed a transaction was unable to arrange for shipment of the work to China and was ultimately told by an advisor that Xiao was “indisposed” until further notice. Another source acted as a proxy for Xiao at an auction, only to find themselves on the hook when he allegedly refused to pay for an artwork that was won on his behalf.
To be sure, many sources in the Chinese-speaking art world that Artnet News spoke with were tight-lipped on the topic of Xiao. Some refused to comment or declined to acknowledge that they knew him.
Still, as Artnet News’ investigation progressed, more dealers and other art professionals who had transacted with Xiao surfaced. Another dealer said they had been warned not to do business with him, while a third dealer was concerned how Xiao’s reputation may impact that of fellow Chinese art collectors and private museums.
“Chinese collectors and private museums are not like that,” the third dealer said.
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