Christie’s to Auction Art on the Mainland

Auction house Christie’s announced Tuesday that it had secured a license to operate independently in China, a move which will facilitate direct access into the world’s largest art and auction market. From The New York Times:

Sotheby’s and Christie’s have been operating in Hong Kong for several decades and have seen their business explode in the city, which is governed separately.

But the world’s two biggest auction houses have long sought greater access to mainland China to cultivate collectors, hold auctions and compete with China’s own formidable auction houses, Beijing Poly International and China Guardian, entities that have recently moved into the ranks of the world’s biggest auction houses.

Last year Sotheby’s formed a joint venture in Beijing with the state-owned Beijing Gehua Cultural Development Group to hold auctions in China. Sotheby’s is the 80 percent owner of that enterprise.

Now Christie’s has signed its own agreement with the City of Shanghai and plans to hold its first auction this fall, although the company said the agreement restricted it from dealing in “cultural relics.” The company can operate throughout China but will be based in Shanghai and pay taxes there

The presence of Christie’s should enable Shanghai to steer affluent mainlanders away from Hong Kong, according to George Chen of the South China Morning Post:

In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post, Christie’s chief executive Steven Murphy said the move would significantly boost the mainland art business.

“Chinese collectors, especially those new to the art market, will have the opportunity to participate in our auctions without having to travel overseas,” Murphy said.

Until now Christie’s has held China- and Asia-themed auctions in Hong Kong, and art patrons from the mainland have had to travel to take part.

“Our launch in China will be a game changer and it’s all about right timing, right conditions, with the right people,” he said.

The move also indicates that the Chinese government is willing to ease market restrictions for foreign firms, though the playing field will not be completely level yet. From Jason Chow of The Wall Street Journal:

But the new license has restrictions that the local houses aren’t subject to. Christie’s isn’t allowed to trade so-called cultural relics—items that predate 1911 and are deemed vital to the country’s heritage by the Chinese government. That means Christie’s won’t be able to sell classical paintings and antiques that have traditionally been the most valuable collectibles among Chinese buyers.

For the past eight years, Christie’s has been limited in China to a licensing deal with Forever International Auction Co. But Mr. Curiel said Christie’s would rather go on its own, even if independence meant restrictions on what it can sell. Christie’s said it intends to end its relationship with Forever in September.


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