Office To Be Dedicated To Sourcing, Rather Than Sales
By this point, the international ambitions of China’s largest auction houses — China Guardian and Beijing Poly — are far from a mystery. Relative newcomers compared to the likes of Christie’s and Sotheby’s, China Guardian (est. 1993) and Beijing Poly (est. 2005) have quickly emerged as the world’s third and fourth-largest auction houses by feeding the exponential growth in demand for art and antiques in their native mainland China. As the BBC pointed out last month, both auction houses have, in record time, dominated the Chinese contemporary and traditional art segments, with China Guardian taking in US$606 million at its autumn auctions in Beijing last November, besting the $412 million made by Sotheby’s at its Hong Kong auctions in October, as well as the $367 pulled in by Christie’s at its November Hong Kong auctions.
With demand for art and antiques only rising among China’s wealthy, both China Guardian and Beijing Poly have their eyes on becoming international players in the auction world. But unlike Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the ambitions we see among Chinese auction houses have less to do with holding sales around the world than they do with procuring items to sell back home. Last December, upon the launch of China Guardian’s first office in New York, the Wall Street Journal noted:
“The United States has a long history of collecting Chinese traditional arts, privately and in the museum system,” said Asia Society’s museum director, Melissa Chiu. “I think China Guardian setting up an office in New York city is in some way a recognition of that.”
China Guardian is sourcing in New York, but it won’t be selling here. All of its auctions are held in Beijing, where there is much higher demand for traditional Chinese art and a stronger market, said Kou Qin, a director and vice president. About 40% of the pieces in China Guardian auction lots are sourced from the U.S., Europe and Australia.
Following the lead of its smaller competitor, this March Beijing Poly is due to open the doors of its New York office, which — like China Guardian’s — will function essentially as a sourcing center to, as the company puts it, “facilitate artwork collections [sic] and sales.” Slated to open in mid-March during Asian Art Week, Beijing Poly’s new office will be located in the Bar Building at 36 West 44th Street. As a company release states this week, though this is Beijing Poly’s first office in New York, the auction house has completed 12 artwork collections in the US since 2007. The timing of the office grand opening appears to be no coincidence, as Poly plans to, as the company adds, “hold an opening ceremony, during which Poly staff will be [in attendance] for artwork collection.”
Though Beijing Poly and China Guardian plan to, for the foreseeable future, focus on sourcing overseas and selling at home, their international expansion raises interesting questions about what effect they theoretically could have on the Chinese art market. As Jing Daily pointed out last September, Chinese auction houses tend to heavily promote a set of artists — particularly in the contemporary art segment — often unknown in Western countries, though their ability to procure quality work by internationally known Chinese contemporary artists is increasing.
Most likely, Guardian and Poly would have little luck trying to sell Western collectors on “blue-chip” Chinese artists they prioritize, over internationally recognized blue-chips. As such, we’d expect to see these Chinese auction houses playing it relatively safe in cities like London, Paris or New York for the first several years (if they do, in fact, open locations there), sticking to artists collected by ultra-wealthy buyers in China as well as overseas: the likes of Zeng Fanzhi, Liu Ye, Cai Guoqiang and Zhang Xiaogang.