Christie’s not sheepish in SH

By Lu Qianwen Source:Global Times Published: 2013-4-17 15:43:00


A Christie's employee walks between the two halves of Damien Hirst's Away from the Flock (Divided) piece ahead of its Post War and Contemporary art sale on February 8, 2013 in London, England. Photo: CFP
A Christie's employee walks between the two halves of Damien Hirst's Away from the Flock (Divided) piece ahead of its Post War and Contemporary art sale on February 8, 2013 in London, England. Photo: CFP

While the traditional Spring auction season in the mainland moves into top gear over the next two months, the news last week that Christie's is officially entering the mainland blasted the overall market, leaving auction players and local collectors pondering what this world auction magnet might bring to them.

On April 9, Christie's announced that it has acquired a license to set up a wholly owned subsidiary in Shanghai, becoming the first foreign auction house to gain such a license in China.

Before Christie's, another world auction heavyweight, Sotheby's, also entered the mainland market. In September of last year, it established a joint venture with Gehua Culture Development Group in Beijing.

Compared to Sotheby's move, which was limited by certain art market opening policies then, Christie's Shanghai subsidiary undoubtedly gives it a much wider space to exert its influence in the Chinese art market. And to kick things off, Christie's has announced plans to hold its first mainland auction this autumn.

A liberalizing signal

"The Chinese government has shown their vision to invest in and develop art and culture, and it is a very encouraging sign that the government is taking measures to liberalize certain markets and welcome international entrants," said Cai Jinqing, managing director of Christie's China in an e-mail interview with the Global Times.

In the early 1990s, with the emergence of the domestic art market, the Chinese government strictly forbade the entry of foreign auction companies into the mainland. And when China joined the WTO in 2001, it agreed to call off protective measures in the auction sector by December 11, 2004. But certain restrictions are still in place such as the auctioning of national cultural relics.

"Being allowed to auction art works other than those cultural relics is like opening a restaurant but being forbidden to offer fried dishes (the most common dishes on Chinese people's table)," said Dong Guoqiang, president of Beijing Council Auction Company, on his Sina Weibo.

Even though still limited by the variety of items it can auction, Christie's has made a big step forward compared to its competitors or its own Asian footprints in past years. Since 1984, when the company first set up its representative office in Hong Kong, it has made restless efforts to maximize its approach to the Chinese art market.

In 1994, it first entered the mainland market by setting up an office in Shanghai. And then in 1996, the Beijing branch office was set up.

"Christie's has been present in China for almost 20 years, and 10 years ago, we were the first to launch the 'Asia Contemporary Art' category," said Cai. "In 2012 the number of Christie's clients in the Chinese mainland doubled from what it was in 2008."

Reshaping the market

With Christie's busy preparing for its first auction in the Chinese mainland this fall, a variety of fresh art works - the type that have earned the company its reputation and competitive edge - are expected to meet local collectors. There will be international works of art, jewelry, watches and wine. "Christie's Shanghai will also offer exhibitions, art advisory, art import and export and other services," Cai introduced.

"More optional collectibles are certainly a good thing for investors, besides, Christie's entering [the country] also brings greater liquidity for those art works. They have more platforms to realize their value," said Zhao Yong, president of Hosane Auction Company in Shanghai.

However, while collectors may get excited about more choices, local competitors begin to feel the threat posed by it. As an international player with 247 years of experience and expertise in auction, Christie's has much it can teach its Chinese peers about the standardization and transparency, pricing and quality of the lots.

However, with only a limited playing field in the mainland where antiques and paintings, both ancient and modern, take a great share of the art market, Christie's is likely to have more influence on contemporary and Western art.

"Among its global sales, Chinese ancient art actually takes a small share," said Xie Xiaodong, vice general manager of Council Auction in Beijing. "Half of its sales come from luxury varieties like jewelry and watches, as well as its post war and contemporary art," he said.

Previous record auction prices in Hong Kong were mainly from ancient Chinese paintings and calligraphy, and Hong Kong is expected to maintain dominance in those categories.

But with Christie's entry in the mainland, combined with the purchasing power of mainland consumers, Xie anticipates Shanghai will be where record prices are seen for those categories the venerable auction house is permitted to sell.

International art hub

With its economy expanding steadily and a strong heritage and appreciation of art, China has become the second most valuable art market in the world representing 25 percent of all sales in 2012, according to TEFAF Art Market Report 2013. And depending on the fast growing mainland art market, Hong Kong in the recent three decades has developed into an important art hub in Asia thanks to its duty-free tax structure.

"As a free port, Hong Kong now is a center of art exhibition and trading, but its biggest problem lies in its identity, which [with its Western influence] can hardly be said to represent the essence of Chinese culture," said Zhao.

On the other side, mainland cities like Beijing and Shanghai are stepping into a wider art market. Boasting its rich cultural heritage and long imperial and private collecting histories, Beijing now is the most focused art market in the country, with a group of leading auction companies developed there such as Poly International Auction Company, Guardian Auction and Council Auction.

Though lagging behind in the past decade, Shanghai in the past two years has also made efforts to nurture its art market. In 2012, a group of influential art museums have been established including Power Station of Art, China Art Museum, Shanghai, and Long Museum.

And at the end of March, Shanghai International Art Trading Center at the Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone in Pudong area was officially initiated, built especially for the storage, exchange, import and export of art works.

Now the fact that Christie's has become the first foreign company to be allowed to hold auctions in the mainland underlines the Shanghai government's vision and ambition to build the city into a more influential art hub.

"Shanghai is not short of big buyers of art, in fact at those art auctions in Beijing and Hong Kong, we can all see Shanghai collectors," said Xu Zilin, an art critic.

"Now, Shanghai may be ready to stand out as an art hub in the country, thanks to having better support facilities including financing, insurance and logistics," he analyzed.

Indeed, with its art free trade zone kicking off last month, Shanghai is racing at full speed to build its art market.


Posted in: ARTS

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