In the aftermath of Christie’s ground-breaking Shanghai sale where $25m was raised for an assortment of auctionable luxury goods, most observers are trying to make sense of what the sale means. After all, no foreign company has been allowed to hold an auction on the mainland. Yet Christie’s remains constrained by local laws from dealing in the most lucrative class of objects—pre-1949 works of art—that drive the domestic market.
Instead of framing the sale as one of a protected domestic market under siege from foreigners claiming to offer fair play and transparency as The Economist neatly sums up here:
Cai Jinqing, head of Christie’s in China, says her firm plans to take them on with its depth of knowledge (it offered expert art lectures before this week’s auction), innovation (it does online art auctions) and its trusted global brand.
Zhao Xu, the boss of Poly International, a giant auction firm owned by a conglomerate controlled by the army, is supremely confident that the arrival of foreign rivals “will change little”. He argues that the newcomers have no competitive advantages inside China.
That’s surely true. What the Christie’s—and Sotheby’s which will partner with a local auctioneer soon—has as an advantage is global cachet. A fact not lost on the auction house’s strategists. The Shanghai sale was long on luxury goods: wine, watches and Western masters like Picasso, Calder and Morandi that would sell best as trophies for wealthy first-time buyers. This was no connoisseurs sale. Nor was it meant to be.
The evening was a window into a different sort of art market from the one mainland buyers are used to. To amplify the evening, Christie’s encouraged an air of excitement. The auctioneer and Christie’s staff encouraged frequent applause, sometimes after successive bids, as the New York Times noted:
Mostly Chinese buyers attended the sale in a vast ballroom at the Shangri La hotel here, where the auctioneer, Jin Ling, in a vermilion dress, conducted the bidding in Chinese, often in excited tones. […] Before the auction, Christie’s experts said the company decided to offer what they called an array of categories rather than concentrate on paintings and sculpture. In that sense, the sale was a test of Chinese taste that would set the trend for future auctions, they said.
The wheel of Chinese tastes will turn slowly. And the second front in the war between the Chinese way of doing auction business and the Western way—where objects long outside of China are bid upon simultaneously by mainland and overseas buyers—will remain in Hong Kong for obvious reasons. But Christie’s has established an important beachhead from which it can develop something even more valuable than taking a piece of China’s antiquities market. That is, it is continuing to develop a global market for goods that are equally valuable to Chinese buyers, Europeans, South Americans and Ultra High Net Worth Individuals wherever they may be.
Christie’s v. The People’s Army (Economist)
Christie’s Opens for Business in Mainland China With Its First Auction (NYTimes)