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.”
Though Christie's will likely have to keep waiting before it'll be able to conduct auctions in mainland China, the auction house has been actively looking to step up its presence there. In January, the auction house said that it will take its traveling "Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal" exhibition — the largest-ever Warhol exhibition to ever hit Asia — to China next year. Soon after, rival Sotheby's detailed plans to tap demand from inland Chinese art-lovers by taking a traveling pre-auction exhibition to Chengdu in the run-up for next week's spring sales in Hong Kong. This week, Christie's upped the stakes even further, announcing that it has appointed Jinqing Caroline Cai as new Managing Director, China, to lead Christie's business development throughout China.
According to a company release, Cai's roles will include further developing Christie's services to clients in the region, developing the auction house's business presence and working with the its licensing partner in China, Forever. Cai will additionally assume a great deal of responsibility for growing Christie's educational and cultural activities in China and advising clients globally on both the Chinese art categories and the Chinese marketplace. No small task.
As François Curiel, President of Christie’s Asia, said this week of Cai's appointment, "A key priority has been to strengthen Christie's China presence and familiarize Chinese collectors with the broad spectrum of our services, making it easy for them to transact with us. A crucial element in this ambitious vision for the region was the appointment of an experienced professional to lead our efforts...[Ms. Cai] will be of great help in further elevating China's art and culture in the global marketplace."
With its presence-building initiatives, Christie’s seems to be taking the long view of its mainland China business, despite the inherent difficulties and its competitive disadvantage against domestic auction houses. This is a smart move, since Chinese collectors -- despite their occasionally frenzied buying at Beijing or Hong Kong auctions -- are still at a relatively early stage, and a window of opportunity exists for the likes of Christie's and Sotheby's to cultivate this collector class. Christie's seems to acutely recognize this. As Francois Curiel told the BBC in January, “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.”