In May, Christie’s Xin Li stunned the audience at the record Contemporary art sales with a string of Chinese clients bidding aggressively on major lots. Now, Kelly Crow reveals the anatomy of Christie’s efforts to cultivate these new buyers:
In early May, Christie’s invited a group of 18 new collectors from China to visit New York. The auction house escorted the guests on guided tours through the Museum of Modern Art, arranged VIP tickets to a local art fair and threw a lavish dinner in the Rockefeller Center ballroom of Christie’s. Auctioneers also reserved two discreet skyboxes overlooking the house’s saleroom so the group could watch its major spring sales of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art.
Christie’s efforts paid off: During its May 13 contemporary art sale, members of the group placed bids on at least half the top 10 priciest pieces in what became an historic, $745 million auction. The group, mostly women, used telephones in their skybox to call a Christie’s specialist standing in the saleroom, Xin Li, a former actress and model in China. She often had to toggle three telephones at a time in order to field their overlapping bids. By sale’s end, members of the group bid on or won a gallery’s worth of masterpieces—including a $66.2 million Mark Rothko abstract, a $33.7 million Jeff Koons sculpture of a train, a $29.2 million Gerhard Richter squeegee abstract and a $26 million Alexander Calder sculpture of a “Fish,” a Chinese symbol of prosperity.