The U.S. housing market is still in the tank. The euro is hanging by a thread. Angry citizens have occupied Wall Street and are raging in the streets of Athens, Rome and London and...what’s this? Art sales are going through the roof?<br/><br/>It’s true. Against a backdrop of economic uncertainty bordering on calamity, the global art market is on track for its best year ever, with auction revenues for fine art sales totalling $6.3 billion (U.S.) through the first half of 2011. Powering this market, as with several others: the redoubtable Chinese buyer. In 2010, for the first time ever, China became the planet’s top auction marketplace for fine art, outstripping France, Britain and the United States; five of the world’s top 10 selling artists today are Chinese, with names like Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Xiaogang and Chen Yifei outshining art luminaries such as Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Damien Hirst. <br/><br/>Because the majority of Chinese works at auction are contemporary pieces, the word "bubble" has crossed the lips of more than one art-world observer, who point to the rise and fall of Britain’s Damien Hirst as a classic cautionary tale. In 2008, just over $270-million (U.S.) worth of his art was sold at auction; a year later, his annual auction sales had plunged 93%, to $19 million (U.S.). Many wonder whether Zeng or Zhang face a similar fate if the Chinese locomotive loses steam.<br/><br/>Bubble or not, the shift is bringing these art worlds closer together. Western-based dealers are embracing the Chinese market, with influential U.S. galleries Pace and Gagosian setting up shop in China within the past year, and Art Basel, the pre-eminent art fair, launching a Hong Kong festival in May, 2012. Meanwhile, the number of Chinese billionaires is expected to grow at a healthy annual clip of 20% through 2014 (after doubling last year from 130 to 271), suggesting a steady stream of potential buyers, at least for the foreseeable future.<br/><br/>Hirst, in describing his declining fortunes in late 2008, said, rather prosaically, "What goes up must come down"—which, as it turns out, doesn’t translate very well into Mandarin.