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In the Chinese art market, it pays to be old.
This is the lesson from the 2010 list of the top living artists from China ranked by the value of their works sold at auction over the last year. The list, compiled by Hurun Report in partnership with the Shanghai Art Museum, shows a shift in collectors' tastes toward classical art, reversing a recent trend that had favored contemporary Chinese painters. The painters whose work is benefiting the most are the ones who have been around longer.

In the top spot is 89-year-old Zhao Wuji, also spelled as Zao Wou-Ki, with total sales at public auction of US$35.1 million. That is up 32% from the previous year.

He is followed by 91-year-old Wu Guanzhong with $31.7 million, up 18%. Fan Zeng, 72, came in at No. 3 with $21.7 million in sales, almost double the level from the previous year.

The average age of the top 10 artists is 77, compared to 58 last year.

'This year, the preference amongst collectors for classical art is the most striking development,' said Rupert Hoogewerf, founder of Hurun Report, which tracks information about wealthy individuals in China. In last year's list, classical and contemporary art sales were more or less evenly matched.

??Overall, last year wasn't a great one for the Chinese art market. Works by the top 50 artists on the 2010 Hurun list sold a combined $258 million at auction last year, a 37% drop from the previous year.

None of last year's top three -- oil painters Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi -- ranked among the top five spots this year.

However, the most expensive artwork by a living Chinese artist sold at auction in 2009 was still a contemporary piece done in oil on canvas.

??Christie's Hong Kong sold 'Snow Started Falling' by 90-year-old Zhu Dequn for $5.9 million. Wu Guanzhong's 1995 work 'Liu Yin Mu Niu Tu Jingxin' (roughly translated as 'Herding cows beneath the willow shade') ranked as the most expensive traditional Chinese ink painting sold over the past year, fetching $2.1 million.

??The number of painters on the list using the traditional Chinese ink style leapt to 19 from eight last year, while the number of contemporary artists fell to 25 from 35.