Christie's follows the money to China

With millionaires on tap, the country holds promise for top auction houses.
Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait With Skeleton Arm and Madonna
Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait With Skeleton Arm and Madonna

Following the money held by newly minted Chinese millionaires, Christie’s has opened in Shanghai.

“We have made a significant achievement in becoming our own entity in Shanghai, without any Chinese partnership,” said Jonathon Stone, chairman and international head of Asian art. “We can act as we do in any of our offices, such as New York, Paris and Hong Kong; however, being in Shanghai allows us to target our Chinese customers more accurately. The Chinese market has become deeper, bigger and broader.”

Chinese laws and regulations about cultural relics define what Christie’s is allowed to sell within the country, forbidding any works made before 1949, even Western art.

However, Christie’s can exhibit art works to assist wealthy Chinese collectors learn about Western art. “Chinese collectors tend towards the big names in Western art but this buying trend has been growing at a steady pace; it is not a bubble,” said Stone. “We cannot deal or trade in cultural patrimony, even non-Chinese works. However, we can attract buyers from China to our auctions that are held all over the world where they can buy what they like.”

The first Shanghai show in September 2013 put on a display of Pablo Picasso’s 1969 Homme Assis, a 1963 still-life by Giorgio Morandi, and Self-Portrait With Skeleton Arm and Madonna, an acrylic and silkscreen ink by Andy Warhol, which sold for Rmb12 million ($1.95 million). The Western art resides in Shanghai’s new free-trade zone, meaning it can be brought into China, shown to the public and taken out again without any tax having to be paid.

The auction also included Asian contemporary art and fine wines, in recognition of China’s booming market for rare vintages. The first sale raised about $25 million while the second auction, held in April, made around $20 million.

“The outcomes of these initial auctions was about as expected, and gave a good representation of what Christie’s is all about,” said Stone.

Of course, Shanghai’s newly hatched auctions are dwarfed by the long-established spring and autumn sales in Hong Kong. The May 2014 auction concluded this year with $389 million in sales.

“The wave of energy from Asian collectors swept through our sale in Hong Kong as well as in other locations this year,” said Francois Curiel, chairman of Christie’s Asia Pacific, in a recent press release. “Asian buyers showed their knowledge and expertise, focusing on acquiring works of art of exceptional quality.”

Stone said that anything imperial, belonging to an emperor or his court, and Song, Ming and Qing ceramics are high on the lists of canny Chinese buyers in Hong Kong.

On the other hand, Stone added: “Our job is also to identify younger artists and showcase them to an international audience. Emerging artists from China are of interest to all collectors.”

Speaking about collectors, Stone said that many buy what they love but are usually very aware of the value of their collections. “Art is a tangible asset,” he said. “We have seen growth of people buying with the intention to make money.

“This trend has been driven by the escalation of prices, especially of contemporary Chinese art. But buyers should remember that all categories of art go through cyclical periods and that art is no longer just in the US, Europe and Japanese markets, but truly has become international. They should be exploring art from everywhere.”

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