Exclusive Interview: China Guardian President Hu Yanyan on Chinese Collectors and Corporate Changes

    One of the most powerful women in Asia's art industry discusses what lies ahead for the world's fourth-largest auction house.
    China Guardian President Hu Yanyan. (Courtesy Photo)
    Liz FloraAuthor
      Published   in Finance

    China Guardian President Hu Yanyan. (Courtesy Photo)

    Established in 1993 when China’s art collection market was still in its infancy, China Guardian has risen to become the fourth-largest auction house in the world as China has ascended to second place among the top global art markets.

    China Guardian has been undergoing a host of new developments as China’s auction market matures and China’s rich gain a growing affinity for art collection. With offices in Tokyo, New York, and Vancouver, the company has been expanding its international presence through global collection efforts. It has been sending experts to North America and Europe to collect items for auctions, recently hiring Beijing-based French gallerist Hadrien de Montferrand to head up its efforts to search for Chinese art and antiques in France. This has come at a time when its main competitor, Poly Auction, has been on an international path as well, with hopes to buy smaller foreign auction houses such as Bonhams.

    Last year, the auction house underwent a restructuring process to comprise two subsidiaries that included the original China Guardian auction house and a separate investment company soon after Poly Auction announced an IPO. As part of the changes, it’s constructing a new headquarters in Beijing designed by German architect Ole Scheeren, which is set to be the world’s “first modern auction house building."

    In order to gain more insights on China Guardian’s recent changes as China’s art market rapidly develops, Jing Daily interviewed the company’s director and president Hu Yanyan. Named by Financial Times as one of the five most powerful women in Asia's art world, Hu has been leading the company’s recent developments as it works to cater to an increasingly educated, globalized, and plugged-in Chinese collector base.

    You’re currently building a new headquarters in Beijing. Why did China Guardian decide to relocate and what is the concept of the new structure?#

    China Guardian was founded more than 20 years ago, and upholds a corporate philosophy of honesty, professionalism, constant innovation, and forward thinking. It has already become a global engine for the Chinese cultural relics and art market. Along with the company’s continuous development and intensified competition in the market, the China Guardian board decided to make a strategic plan for the company's structure and set up the "Guardian Culture Group" to further enhance the professional level of specialized operations. In order to meet the needs of the group’s operation requirements, Guardian built a new general headquarters in Beijing: the Guardian Art Center.

    The Guardian Art Center will not only be the new home of Guardian; it is also a microcosm of its developing vision for the future. The Guardian Art Center is being constructed with the goal of providing a world-class arts center. Its core will be the auction and trading of cultural relics and art, and it will combine auctions, exhibitions, office operations, academic research, art restoration, and other functions in one body. It will ultimately become Asia's first "one-stop" integrated art platform.

    Do you feel that Chinese collectors are often buying art more for investment purposes or for personal enjoyment?#

    China's art market has developed rapidly over the past few years, and most people still treat it as an investment. But, from time to time, the market will have a shakeup that will actually end up a wash for the speculators. Therefore, the attitude of only entering the auction industry for the purpose of speculation and profit is not a good choice. After several ups and downs, the market is still relatively stable due to the people who have a real love for art. So, in the long run, China's auction industry still needs a buying and selling culture. Historically, there have been cycles of accumulation and scarcity, which can help the industry progress toward positive maturation.

    Now that Chinese buyers are collecting more Western art, will you expand to this category?#

    In China, training for the high-end Western art collection market is still in its infancy, but there are bright spots. Although Chinese collectors of Western antiques and paintings have a 20-year history, this consumer group has been a relatively small minority over the past few years. They’re mostly collectors with economic strength and cultural cultivation who are obsessed with Western European culture. Because this involves the integration of different cultures and regional markets, it will be a relatively long-term process.

    Regarding opening a new horizon in the field of Western art collection, the Chinese collectors are facing choices that are much more complex than in the past. For example, when faced with Qi Baishi and Picasso works of a similar price, how does one choose? This is a very interesting topic that involves the authority to appraise, value judgments, price comparison, market conditions, and more. These are the issues we need to make an effort to fulfill before answering.

    Will China Guardian expand into luxury goods categories such as cars or handbags?#

    Artifacts and works of art are currently still dominant; for now, there is no plan to develop other luxury goods.

    Last year, the company announced that it would be restructuring after competitor Poly launched an IPO. Do you have any plans for an IPO?#

    There is currently no plan for this.

    How does China Guardian work to set itself apart from competitors Sotheby’s and Christie’s in China?#

    Since its inception in 1993, China Guardian has always abided by principles of integrity, focusing on spreading outstanding Chinese culture and heritage while eagerly embracing constant innovation. For 20 years in the Chinese market, China Guardian has made outstanding achievements in the industry which speak for themselves. Behind this is our employees’ open, fair, and impartial adherence to market rules. This foundation of integrity and fair competition has led to Guardian’s sincere and pragmatic team culture in order to win the customer's highest trust in the brand reputation.

    In addition to China,you have centers in Tokyo, New York, and Vancouver. Can you discuss more about your U.S. strategy? Will you have Asia Week sales?#

    “Stay one step ahead and work diligently abroad” has been Guardian’s most important internationalization strategy. In the pace of working diligently abroad, Guardian has consistently expanded collection channels and advanced global art exchange, which have gone hand-in-hand on the path toward a trading platform. The United States is an important collection source for China Guardian. The main reason is that these cities have an important group of overseas Chinese collectors, who have a strong collecting tradition and environment. We have been to New York, San Francisco, and other cities to organize various activities and establish a deep friendship with local collectors.

    Does China Guardian have any plans to buy smaller foreign auction houses to gain a more visible footprint in the West?#

    China Guardian is an internationally renowned auction company that is over 20 years old; our development always adheres to international standards of operation. We always have an international perspective, so no matter what country we are in, we need to advance gradually and consolidate at every step, planning expansion while improving the visibility of the Chinese art auction industry. There are presently no plans to acquire small foreign auction houses.

    Chinese collectors are often concerned about counterfeit antiques. How does China Guardian address this issue?#

    In order to ensure the interests of owners and buyers, Guardian has relied on experts since its inception. The core team in each sector has very professional experts, and there are strict screening review processes to protect the interests of customers to the greatest degree.

    From the process of obtaining the works to completing the auction, Guardian passes through what we call a “four-tiered, three-dimensional” set of procedures. The first of the “four tiers” is preliminary judgment in the process of collection. If the subject does not meet the auction standards, it is filtered in the first judgment. If it is selected, then it moves to a specialized branch for consultation where it goes through judgment for a second time. The third checkpoint is consultation with an outside expert. It is then inspected one final time before passing and going to auction.

    Our “three-dimensional“ method is even more scientific: the first dimension is inspection through sight to compare and judge the object’s characteristics, looking for discrepancies in style or standards. The second dimension is an inspection of its origin and previous sales at auction. This is according to an objective analysis of the works’ intrinsic appearance. The third dimension is the use of the latest scientific and technological means to help judge the work. In the absence of the completion of all these processes, Guardian will never allow an object to go to auction, whether or not it is capable of selling. This practice has been in place at Guardian for over 20 years.

    This interview was translated from Chinese.

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