International Auction Houses Looking For Ways To Increase Presence In Asia
Restricted to operating in Hong Kong, major international auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s have spent the last several years looking at new ways of increasing their non-auction presence in mainland China. Faced with stronger competition from domestic Chinese auction houses Beijing Poly and China Guardian, Christie’s in particular has sought to get involved in the Mainland market in any way possible and, in the nearly three years following the Pierre Berget auction controversy, mend fences with Beijing. In November 2010, Christie’s collaborated with an affiliate of China’s Ministry of Culture on the “Trans-Realism” exhibition in New York, a show featuring 29 works hand-picked by a Chinese government-appointed panel. As Andrew Foster, an international managing director at Christie’s, said at the time, “We want to improve our relations with China, with the Chinese people and government, and Chinese museums and artists.”
While gestures like the Trans-Realism show failed to push the Chinese government any closer to allowing international auction houses to enter the Mainland, these auction houses apparently still see value in bankrolling traveling exhibitions and art education programs in China. As Christie’s announced this week, the auction house — in partnership with BNY Mellon, the Andy Warhol Museum, Bloomberg and The Economist — will take the traveling “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal” exhibition, the largest-ever Warhol exhibition to ever hit Asia — to China in 2013.
Starting this year, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the artist’s death, the exhibition will feature over 300 paintings, photographs, screen prints, drawings, 3-D installations and sculptures, including important works such as Jackie (1964), Marilyn Monroe (1967), Mao (1972), Campbell’s Soup (1961), Silver Liz (1963), The Last Supper (1986), and Self-Portrait (1986). Starting its Asian tour at the ArtScience Museum at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands, where it will run from March 17-August 12, 2012, the exhibition will travel to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing in 2013 before moving on to Tokyo in 2014.
As the BBC writes this week, though auction houses like Christie’s would obviously rather hold auctions in Beijing or Shanghai rather than expensive traveling exhibitions, there’s little else that can be done to build greater name recognition among the country’s emerging collector class:
With Chinese law preventing foreign auction houses from holding auctions of artefacts and high import taxes making sales of wine, jewellery and watches commercially unappealing, there is little Christie’s and Sotheby’s can do to compete other than wait for China to level the playing field.
Both companies plan to hold more previews in China and have recruited more Chinese-speaking staff, both in Asia and in New York and London.
Christie’s also has a licensing agreement with Beijing-based auction house Forever, which for a fee uses Christie’s name and expertise.
So far its results have been lacklustre: its annual sales are barely a 10th of the $1.5bn Poly achieved in 2010, a fact Francois Curiel, Christie’s Asia president, attributes to its refusal to adapt to the Chinese industry’s murkier practices.
For its part, Christie’s seems to be taking the long view of its mainland China business, despite the inherent difficulties and its competitive disadvantage. As Francois Curiel told the BBC, “In China, we are at a beginning of a cycle. In time, we hope our network, our reputation and our marketing power will convince people to buy and sell with us.”