The Chinese art market has seen a healthy rebound over the past six to nine months, as mainland-based collectors have pushed prices for traditional artwork to record-breaking highs and prices for blue-chip contemporary artists approaching pre-financial-crisis levels. However, this rebound has really only been seen in Beijing and Hong Kong, as Shanghai -- despite massive investment in the city's cultural and arts infrastructure -- has yet to build an auction market that can compete. But why is this? Shanghai certainly isn't hurting for cash, and the city is home to some of mainland China's top art collectors and thousands of millionaires looking to get in on the game.
According to an article this week in Shanghai Daily, the contrast between the Beijing and Shanghai auction markets is "striking - and embarrassing," and helps to illustrate why, despite having China's first auction house (Duo Yun Xuan, est. 1992), Shanghai lags far behind its northern neighbor. From the article:
"The past glory of Shanghai in art auctions has slipped away," laments Ji Chongjian, owner of the Chongyuan Auction House in Shanghai, previously in charge of the city's Jing Hua Auction House renowned for its works with clear provenance.
"Perhaps the total sales from all the auctions in Shanghai in one year cannot equal the sales from one auction in Beijing," Ji says.
The article goes on to point out that part of the success of Beijing's auction houses comes down to their famed hospitality:
Success...requires trust from clients who entrust precious collections to an auction house, and trust from buyers who rely on the house for quality art and integrity in management.
"I never go to the auction in Shanghai," reveals one art collector who declined to be quoted by name. "Each time I arrive in Beijing for an auction, all my accommodation has been perfectly arranged by the auction house, and the general manager will invite me to dinner.
"People of our status don't really care about a free dinner, but it feels good that someone treats you with regard. I'm pleased to chat with a professional team who may give me some useful suggestions.
"But I have never received the same treatment in Shanghai," he is quick to add.
Along with hospitality, the article posits that Beijing -- as the cultural and political center of China -- is the natural leader of the Chinese auction market, as culture and business or politics often mingle there in uniquely Chinese ways:
"Chinese paintings and calligraphy are very popular, as many people use them as gifts in exchange for benefit. Although the purpose is clear, one cannot do this by giving piles of cash. This would be vulgar and offensive," [Ji Chongjian] explains.
"But art is different. Just imagine the effect if you take out an ancient Chinese scroll and present it as special gift to someone you wish to favor."
Though Shanghai-based auction houses often complain about the difficulty of competing with their well-connected, well-funded Beijing counterparts, some see a light at the end of the tunnel.
To improve Shanghai's dismal auction situation, Ji and his team are developing a strategy to make the city more [appealing].
"I won't duplicate the Beijing mode of doing business in Shanghai," he says. "I'm thinking about something that fits the atmosphere of Shanghai."
Ji's first step is to renovate an old villa on Yuyuan Road into a private auction site.
"Unlike the regular spring and autumn auctions, every weekend there will be auctions in our villa," he says. "I want to spread the concept that art is no longer high above sky."
He plans to target medium-range buyers and sellers and give them a platform to circulate their art.
But for high-end clients, Ji is establishing the Nobility Art Society, a very exclusive private club that has around 80 members.