The Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seed Melee –

ai weiwei sunflower seeds The Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seed Melee   artmarketblog.comI was recently informed by a representative from one of the first galleries to purchase a share of Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seed installation, titled Kui Hua Za (Sunflower Seeds), that they had purchased the work in 2009 on the understanding that it was a limited edition of ten 500kg lots.

However, since purchasing the work, the gallery has to stand by and watch as the original edition of ten turned into a number of different editions that culminated in the installation of around 100 million of the seeds installed in the Tate museum which weighed more than 150 tonnes of which the Tate purchased ten tonnes.

Adding salt to the wound is the fact that several other versions of the work have also been produced which now exists in 500kg, 5 ton and 10 ton versions.  One ton versions have also been sold at auction by both Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

Sotheby’s sold one ton of the seeds, listed as being from an edition of 10 executed in 2008-10, during their 9th May 2012 Contemporary Art Evening Sale for 782,500 USD against an estimate of 600,000 – 800,000 USD.

Christie’s sold another ton of the porcelain sunflower seeds for £421,250 against an estimate of £350,000 – £450,000 during their 11th October Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction in London.

The first lot of Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds to appear at auction was sold by Sotheby’s in February 2011 when 100kgs of the seeds sold for 349,250 GBP against an estimate of 80,000 – 120,000 GBP.

According to Christie’s, “Executed in 2008, this work was conceived prior to the commission by Tate Modern in 2010. A series of ten unique works with one artist’s proof now exist, each accompanied by a certificate signed by the artist.”

Haines Gallery in San Francisco is currently exhibiting 250kgs of the seeds while 1000 seeds displayed in a glass jar inscribed with title and artist name – apparently an edition of 30 -is currently being advertised for sale on with a price of $40,000 – $50,000.

Now, I am in no way questioning the significance of this work or the honesty of Ai Weiwei, but it does seem a bit cheeky to produce so many versions of this work after originally offering it for sale as a limited edition of ten.

The big question is, of course, whether the increased production of the seeds has in any way reduced the value of the original edition produced by the artist.  Because so many more seeds now exist than were initially produced for the first edition, one would have to presume that the value has been reduced.

Faurschou Gallery sold one of the first 500kg editions for €350,000 in 2009.  Taking into consideration the number of variants of the work that have been produced since 2009, would the 500kg batch fetch the same, less or more than €350,000 if sold today?

**Nicholas Forrest is a Sydney/London based art market analyst, art consultant and writer.  He is the founder of the Art Market Blog ( which offers independent commentaries as well as research and analysis on the current art market, and has recently been published in Fabrik magazine, Verve magazine, Visual Art Beat magazine, Australian Art Collector magazine, Art & Investment magazine and many others.  Nic has made several radio appearances (both nationally and internationally) as an art market expert and has received press from the likes of the New York Times, Conde Nast Portfolio and Times of London.

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  • Andrew Werby

    You have to hand it to Mr. Weiwei – who else has made it possible to buy art by the kilo? He’s been subtly subversive throughout his career, of capitalist as well as communist orthodoxies. His re-purposing of neolithic pottery, for instance, questioned the Western world’s reverence for ancient objects. His meticulous documentation of Szechuan earthquake victims exposed corrupt officials and angered the government that empowers them. And now he’s outraged Mr. Forrest’s sense of business ethics by selling small early runs of his sunflower seeds at a higher price than subsequent later larger ones.

    Personally, I don’t see a huge ethical problem here. The gallery that bought their kilos of seeds in 2009 had to have been aware of Mr. Weiwei’s intent to tweak our notions of what art and commerce are, and bought into it willingly. The “transgressive” nature of modern art practice is one of its big selling points, and Weiwei (and his company: Fake Cultural Development Ltd), as I mentioned, has assiduously cultivated his reputation as a rebel and trickster. A continuing theme of his work has been calling into question notions of value in an era of  mass production and the boundaries between the “real” and the “fake”. Presumably, he didn’t enter into any contract limiting his future production of these seeds. Even though all of them are basically identical, the earlier editions, like the early edition of a book, can be ascribed a higher value by collectors, and I’d be surprised if that isn’t what this gallery is telling its customers.

    Many contemporary artists recycle the same images into new series of “limited” editions over the years, and then publish unlimited editions as posters, books, coffee mugs or whatever. In general, this is considered to enhance rather than detract from the value of the original, much as the proliferated images of famous paintings like the Mona Lisa or The Scream (itself produced in several versions) have only made the original works more valuable, since they become more famous with each iteration. Much the same thing must have happened to Weiwei’s work.since he became even more world-famous as an unintended consequence of the Chinese government’s attempt to squelch him in 2011 with prison and tax-evasion charges. No doubt the value of his kilos of seeds has gone up accordingly. I hope he sells more tons of them, since he needs the money to pay back his supporters in his legal battle against the Chinese government (which unsurprisingly, he lost.).

    Andrew Werby

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