Shanghai surprise? Christie’s in Shanghai – art world reaction

Christie’s is the first international auction house to hold sales in mainland China, but how do Shanghai’s art crowd feel about the event? 

Christie’s held its first auction in Shanghai on 26 September 2013, while the city opened up a free trade zone a few days later on the 29th. What does that portend for the future of Shanghai and China’s art market? Art Radar interviewed several arts experts who are knowledgeable about Shanghai’s art scene.

The bund night view with Christie's China Logo on building. Image courtesy Christie's.

Shanghai’s Bund night view with Christie’s China Logo on building (far right). Image courtesy Christie’s.

Christie’s 26 September 2013 auction was held at the Jing An Shangri-La Hotel. According to Christie’s, 39 out of forty lots were sold for a grand total of RMB 154 million (USD 25 million). Two world auction records were set: one for artist Cheong Soo Pieng (1917–1983), whose painting sold for RMB 4,102,500 (USD 667,073), making him the highest selling Singaporean artist in China, and the other for I Nyoman Masriadi, whose mixed media work Fatman sold for RMB 4,582,500 (USD 745,121).

Even though this was the first time a foreign auction house has held an auction in China, Christie’s is no Chinese newcomer, having established a representative office in Shanghai in 1994. In an interview with Art Media Agency (AMA), the managing director of Christie’s China, Jinqing Caroline Cai, states that buyers in China are getting more savvy, while the numbers of new clients grew significantly in 2013. Cai also noted that the city’s free port is “a tangible example of the continuing drive for openness and progression from the Shanghai government.”

How would the combination of Christie’s auctions and the free trade zone affect Shanghai’s art scene and the Chinese art market at large? Art Radar spoke to two gallerists – Meg Maggio of Pékin Fine Arts in Beijing and Josef Ng of Shanghai Art Gallery – and artist Hualin Gu to find out.

Pékin Fine Arts entrance at Cao Changdi. Wang Jin Mao, 'Pillow', stainless steel sculpture. Image courtesy Pékin Fine Arts.

Pékin Fine Arts entrance at Cao Changdi. Wang Jin Mao, ‘Pillow’, stainless steel sculpture. Image courtesy Pékin Fine Arts.

Meg Maggio, Founder and Director of Pékin Fine Arts

Curator and arts writer Meg Maggio, a long-term resident of China, established Pékin Fine Arts in Beijing in November 2005. The over-600 metres gallery space designed by artist Ai Weiwei is used to display contemporary art from Asia.

Why is now the time for foreign auction houses to start operating in China?

Liberalisation of rules by Beijing, allowing Shanghai to operate a free trade zone for artworks, and a similar free trade zone under construction for Beijing to be operational in the near future. Another factor is the growing local art market.

What has changed in recent years in the art scene to bring this about?

The main change is the gradual maturation of the local art scene. More sophisticated buyers, now want higher quality works from both China and abroad. There are more local PRC (People’s Republic of China) art buyers than ever before. There are more art museums and galleries opening, both private and state museums.

How will the opening of foreign auction houses affect the art market? Will prices go up or down, or remain stable? Any ideas what collectors think about the situation?

I don’t see the Christie’s and Sotheby’s sales in China having an immediate effect on the local Chinese art market. The local markets for antique trade are already very mature, and the overseas auction houses will have a tough time competing with the local auction houses. The biggest impact initially will be on the antiques trade.

Sotheby’s and Christie’s have long had offices in China. It is hard to see how this one-or-two-night of auction spectacle and wining and dining will really impact and/or change the art scene. Real change will only come with reduction in import tariffs on artworks and the lifting of more restrictions on overseas auction house activities in China. This is really an auction house only game. The auction house activity rarely if ever impacts on what we do as an art gallery representing emerging contemporary artists.

Installation view of Huang Zhiyang solo exhibition at Pékin Fine Arts, Beijing. Image courtesy Pékin Fine Arts.

Installation view of Huang Zhiyang’s solo exhibition at Pékin Fine Arts, Beijing. Image courtesy Pékin Fine Arts.

What do artists think about the move? Will it affect them?

I don’t think the artists are involved. Of course artists everywhere hope that all activity in the art world will result in increased attention to and awareness of their artistic output. However, most artists I know here stay away from the auction houses. And don’t want to be seen as too closely associated with auction house buying and selling. Most artists we know wish to avoid the taint of being “too commercial” by over-associating with the auction houses.

What other changes can we expect to see in the China art market in the next few years?

Changes in the coming years in the China art market will include increased online art sales within China. New online art sale platforms will be established and very quickly become active and popular.

More art fairs will spring up in second tier cities, such as Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou and other cities.

Also, Beijing’s Ministry of Culture will become more active in promoting artists, museums and public art projects. This cultural policy will primarily involve artists working with more traditional media, since this appeals to wider audiences. The theoretical underpinnings to this policy shift will be to identify high quality contemporary art using traditional, indigenous media. This aim of wedding the contemporary with the tradition will not be easy to achieve and cultural authorities will continue to look for such new contemporary works not only from mainland based artists but also from Chinese artists returning from overseas and/or still living abroad.

The universities will continue to explore new art-studies educational options, increasing art history studies, art management and museum curatorial studies, and art criticism studies. New studio art practices will also be added to the curriculum to include “experimental art” and “new media art” as study areas. All of these policy changes will impact the art market.

Museum growth (both private sector and public sector) and more public cultural space construction will continue in major cities in all of China’s provinces, not only in Beijing and Shanghai. Overseas property developers will be encouraged by Mainland policy to include public art programmes in their construction projects.

All of these developments will lead to more mature and rational growth in the Mainland art market.

Why was Shanghai selected instead of Beijing, where Christie’s already has a certain presence?

Because of the Shanghai free trade zone. Christie’s actually already has a strong presence in both cities, as has Sotheby’s. Sotheby’s will likely do the same auction activity in Beijing and both auction houses will expand their presences and activities in Mainland. At the same time, Poly will continue to dominate the auction business not only in China but also expanding into Hong Kong and New York City. Poly and Guardian will make aggressive inroads into the Hong Kong art market.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s have got to be nervous about the expansion of Mainland auction houses into Hong Kong and the West.

Shanghai Gallery of Art exhibition panoramic view. Image courtesy SGA.

Shanghai Gallery of Art exhibition panoramic view. Image courtesy SGA.

Josef Ng, Director of Shanghai Gallery of Art

Shanghai Gallery of Art (SGA), located on the Bund, was established in 2004 and has been under the directorship of Josef Ng since 2012. Focusing on contemporary Asian art, SGA hosts exhibitions, artists’ projects and interdisciplinary programmes.

Why is now the time for foreign auction houses to start operating in China?

Timing must be immaculate. Although foreign auction houses have been operating in Hong Kong for years, there is still a larger potential of means and resources to tap into from the mainland. Trade openness, wider exposure of art and culture into public attention, and more importantly, a leaner manner of business regulations have led to China being the new and next place for global auction industry.

What has changed in recent years in the art scene to bring this about?

The primary market has matured and paddled along steadily with the secondary market, which is part of the auction business. Buyers and collectors are more discerning with their selections. Moreover, artists are more trusting with their gallery partners and this has caused competitiveness to develop in recent years.

How will the opening of foreign auction houses affect the art market? Will prices go up or down, or remain stable? Any ideas what collectors think about the situation?

Well, I believe most [people] will still adopt a wait-and-see attitude. I don’t think, in the short term, the presence of these auction houses here will affect the art market. As I mentioned, we are already very well-tuned to the auctions in Hong Kong so I reckon business will just go on as usual. Real collectors travel everywhere to seek what they yearn. So situations will merely remain as a matter of historical fact.

Heidi Vogt, 'Is six afraid of seven / 'cause seven eight nine / I'm about to lose the pieces I find', 2011, digital watches, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Shanghai Gallery of Art.

Heidi Vogt, ‘Is six afraid of seven / ’cause seven eight nine / I’m about to lose the pieces I find’, 2011, digital watches, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Shanghai Gallery of Art.

What do artists think about the move? Will it affect them?

As a gallerist, I would want my artists to just go on and do what’s best for their career and that is to create and innovate.

What other changes can we expect to see in the China art market in the next few years?

[It’s] hard to determine but since the first free-trade zone has just been opened in Shanghai, I believe the trade of art will lend itself to certain strategic changes as the first step for the industry to mull over. As we all know, things move fast in China, we could definitely sense certain wheeling and dealing soon for galleries and auction companies.

Why was Shanghai selected instead of Beijing, where Christie’s already has a certain presence?

This is obvious. It is a new market, and the city offers more than just a marketing factor. It is a city that relishes to be challenged. Its people are capable of absorbing new input. There will be exciting times in Shanghai this decade.

Hualin Gu. Image courtesy Hualin Gu.

Hualin Gu. Image courtesy the artist.

Hualin Gu, artist and art writer

New York-based, Shanghai-born Hualin Gu is a visual artist, art teacher and art writer. She has exhibited her art around the world and has written extensively about Chinese contemporary art for publications in Shanghai.

Why is now the time for foreign auction houses to start operating in China? What has changed in recent years in the art scene to bring this about?

Actually foreign auction houses have been trying to start their businesses in China for a long time. For example, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s established their Mainland offices twenty years ago. However, the Chinese Central Government had not thrown open their doors to allow the country’s treasures to be pillaged by foreign giants. As a result, foreign auction houses had to collaborate with the local action houses to develop their Mainland business. Christie’s authorised Beijing Forever International Auction Company Ltd to use the registered trademark license in China in 2005, which is believed to be the first step of Christie’s detour into the mainland auction battles.

Followed by the speedy economic boom in China, there is tremendous growth in the Chinese art market. It is urgent for the Central Government to adjust their policy to the new change. Therefore, not until recently have both Sotheby’s and Christie’s been granted licenses to hold auctions in China.

On 27 September 2012, Sotheby’s announced its joint venture Sotheby’s (Beijing) Auction Co Ltd with Beijing Gehua Cultural Development Group, a Chinese state-owned corporation. The new company immediately proclaimed itself “the first international auction house licensed to conduct auctions in mainland China.” Only six months later, Christie’s broke the news on 9 April 2013 that it was the “first international fine art auction company to be granted a license to operate independently in the Chinese mainland”.

How will the opening of foreign auction houses affect the art market? Will prices go up or down, or remain stable? Any ideas what collectors think about the situation?

Even though foreign auction houses were granted licenses to operate auctions in China, there are still lots of limitations. According to the Chinese Law on Protection of Cultural Relics, international houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s are not allowed to sell Chinese antiques, classic Chinese paintings or other items from before 1911. That means foreign auction houses are not in the field that the Chinese collectors are most interested in and keen to purchase. So far, the most valuable market still belongs to local auction houses.

Except for the cultural relics market, I personally can foresee a blast in the Chinese contemporary art, Asian contemporary art and the jewelry/luxury/wine market. And there will be a trend of more Chinese buyers bidding for European Impressionism, Modernism and contemporary art, American Post-war and contemporary. The prices will become more competitive, since those global auction houses are bringing in high-quality artworks, standards and services that will promote the local market spontaneously.

Any ideas what collectors think about the situation?

Obviously, western connoisseurship and value will be influencing local collectors. The Chinese will be “educated” and “influenced” to accept more western preferences by the market, and will pay for the change. Just like Japanese collectors once purchased lots of western masterpieces in the 1980s to 1990s, now the Chinese collectors will take over the relay baton and follow the trend. It’s a capital game.

What do artists think about the move? Will it affect them? What other changes can we expect to see in the China art market in the next few years?

Generally speaking, with overseas auction houses coming to China, there will be more opportunities and challenges for local artists. With the market channels extended to Asia, especially China, foreign auction houses will bring in western values to the East. For local artists, they will have more chances to appreciate high-quality western masterpieces and contemporary artworks, which will provide artists different angles to develop their own creations. Meanwhile, more Chinese artists can extend their art markets abroad.

Of course, for those artists who never care about the art market, but just focus on their own personal artistic pursuits, there will be little to no effect on them.

What other changes can we expect to see in the China art market in the next few years?

The art market in China will be more diversified, international, and there will be more choices for local collectors and dealers.

For Chinese domestic auction houses, it is a good chance for them to learn from their global counterparts and upgrade their operational practices and professional standards. Anyhow, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have been leading the global auction territory for more than two hundred years. Their specialty in evaluation, exhibition, education, protection, transportation, public relations and other professions are valuable for the Chinese art world.

Why was Shanghai selected instead of Beijing, where Christie’s already has a certain presence?

Firstly, Shanghai has been the “Paradise for Foreign Adventurers” ever since its Open Treaty Port in 1842. Thus, there is a long history for westerners to do business, to live and to promote the development of this metropolis together with the locals. Regarded as the “Oriental Paris”, Shanghai has flourished as a centre of commerce between East and West, and became the undisputed financial hub not only in China but also across the Asia Pacific. With a globalised version, Shanghainese are open-minded and more willing to accept western values. With such historical, geographical and cultural advantages, it is a priority for foreign investors to choose Shanghai instead of other cities in China.

Secondly, for the art market, compared to those competitive auction houses in Beijing, there is no dominant auction house in Shanghai. Therefore, it will be easier for Christie’s to get involved in the local market and extend their ambitions from Shanghai to the mainland.

Last but not least, just on 29 September 2013, China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone was established, which is the first free trade zone in China. It will be more open and free for foreign investors to operate their businesses in Shanghai. The government is billing a major step for financial reforms and economic experimentation that will definitely benefit foreign auction houses.

Susan Kendzulak

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Related Topics: auctions, events in Shanghai and China, art as soft power, business of art, overviews

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