“The slowing economy doesn’t alarm us”: China Guardian’s Hong Kong director talks to Art Radar

China’s economic growth has slowed and international auction houses are expanding their mainland reach, but Hu Yanyan says she welcomes the challenge.

International auction houses may be building business in China, but their mainland competitors are far from resting on their laurels. With its eye set on expansion, China Guardian hosted its first auctions in Hong Kong in October 2012, so Art Radar asked Hu Yanyan, Director of China Guardian Hong Kong, what is next for the auction house and for Chinese contemporary art.

China Guardian Hong Kong Director Hu Yanyan. Image courtesy China Guardian.

China Guardian Hong Kong Director Hu Yanyan. Image courtesy China Guardian.

Based in Beijing, China Guardian was established in 1993 and has since hosted over 300 auctions in Mainland China. 2013 marked its twentieth year on the mainland and its third auction in Hong Kong, with the China Guardian Annual Autumn Auctions falling on 5-6 October 2013.

Over 600 lots went on the auction block over the sale period, ranging from a dedicated twentieth century and contemporary art sale to traditional works and antiquities. After a weekend of bidding, the auction totalled HKD510 million. As evidenced by the success of the sale, the Chinese art market continues to flourish in spite of China’s ongoing economic slowdown.

In the wake of the Autumn Auctions, Christie’s first sale in Shanghai and record-shattering results at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this autumn, Art Radar spoke with Hu Yanyan, Director of China Guardian Hong Kong, to discuss her perspective on the auction house’s future, the economy and the rising interest in Chinese contemporary art.

China Guardian Hong Kong Evening Auction “Grand View: A Night in Hong Kong”. Image courtesy China Guardian.

China Guardian Hong Kong Evening Auction “Grand View: A Night in Hong Kong”. Image courtesy China Guardian.

What did the 2013 Autumn Auctions focus on? Which lots sold particularly well and where were the collectors from?

In the Hong Kong 2013 Autumn Auctions, we especially focused on how to satisfy the specific needs of the Hong Kong art market by releasing special sections: a “Grand View: A Night in Hong Kong” and a dedicated sale of 20th Century and Contemporary Chinese Art. The former aimed at offering collectors the opportunity to own museum-class masterpieces in the Hong Kong art market, while the latter was a curating of approximately forty contemporary pieces of art and sculpture.

Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy achieved the best sale in all sections, recording a transaction volume of HKD173 million, with over fifty percent of the collectors from Mainland China.

Does China Guardian incorporate any educational elements alongside each sale?

This is something we have done since the establishment of China Guardian. We invite different specialists to deliver a keynote speech for the collectors in different events, hoping that they can be able to appreciate the values behind the artworks through the guidance of the specialists.

In the 2013 Hong Kong Autumn Auctionswe invited Xu Lei, a notable art consultant and Chinese ink painting specialist, to deliver a keynote speech titled “The Important Clues in studying the artworks of 20th Century”, sharing his view on the western integration since the early twentieth century in contemporary Chinese art.

The highest amount of deal in the Autumn Auction was Song Lizong’s 'Calligraphy in Regular Script', which was sold for 42.25 million HKD, five times higher than the estimated price. Image courtesy China Guardian.

The highest amount of deal in the Autumn Auction was Song Lizong’s ‘Calligraphy in Regular Script’, which was sold for HKD42.25 million, five times higher than the estimated price. Image courtesy China Guardian.

In the wake of Christie’s hosting its first auctions in Shanghai, it is clear that international auction houses have their eyes set on expanding their markets into Mainland China. What effect will the move of international auction houses into Mainland China have on China Guardian? Will it affect your strategies?

It actually indicates a new structure of the global art market. With the increasing importance of the Asian market, the regional structure of the global art market has undergone a reform. Meanwhile, the Chinese art market has expanded its scale in terms of growing purchasing power. China has assumed the third place in transactions among the global art markets.

China Guardian always welcomes competition. We believe that healthy competition brings improvements and is also a chance for the Chinese art market to connect with the international art market. Christie’s and Sotheby’s are renowned and experienced auction houses; through competition, we hope to learn from their experience and realise our deficiencies, and thus more actively respond to the needs of collectors and vendors in the art market.

In terms of growth, China is rising quickly as a cultural platform. For China Guardian, does this translate into a concomitant growth in sales of contemporary art or are Chinese buyers focusing more on fine art?

Contemporary art has been a promising item in the Chinese art market. For instance, in the 2013 Hong Kong Autumn Auctions, the sections of 20th Century and Contemporary Chinese Art recorded a satisfying transaction volume, which reached HKD110 million. With the increasing art awareness of Chinese buyers, we believe that contemporary art will be a key section in the future.

Throughout the past year, China has witnessed an economic slowdown. Despite this slowdown, does the number of Chinese collectors continue to rise?

The slowing of the economy is not alarming to us. It’s true that it’s now more difficult to get consignments because of economic strains, and revenue shrinks at the same time. However, we all know that the economy has its own cycle. We simply can’t expect it running a high growth at all times. The important thing is to work out a path for the art market to sustain itself in economic downturns, thereby maintaining a healthy development in the long run. In this regard, we reckon that the Chinese art market has already entered a relatively healthy and stable stage since 2012.

Cai Quoqiang, Detail of "Ninety-Nine Horses", 2011, gunpowder on paper, gold-leafed resin models of horses, gunpowder drawing: 400 x 1,800 cm, model horses: 14 x 24 x 5 cm. Commissioned by Mathaf. Photo Lin Yi. Courtesy Cai Studio

Cai Guoqiang was among the artists in the 20th Century and Contemporary Chinese Art auction at China Guardian Hong Kong’s Autumn Auctions 2013; his work ‘Yellow Peonies’ (2010) fetched HKD4,830,000. Cai Quoqiang, Detail of ‘Ninety-Nine Horses’, 2011, gunpowder on paper, gold-leafed resin models of horses, gunpowder drawing: 400 x 1,800 cm, model horses: 14 x 24 x 5 cm. Commissioned by Mathaf. Photo Lin Yi. Courtesy Cai Studio.

In 2012, sales declined dramatically by value and volume at China Guardian and other auction houses. What strategies have you implemented to mitigate this decline?

We will continue to increase the auction categories and establish a strategic direction for international expansion based in Hong Kong. Our goal is always to show renowned masterpieces, providing outstanding buying opportunities and at the same time, offering discerning collectors a multi-channel platform. The result of the Hong Kong 2013 Autumn Auctions is really successful in proving the healthy development of the Chinese art market. The total transaction volume reaches HKD510 million, which is the largest amount transacted in the three auctions which we’ve held in Hong Kong.

In addition to economic factors, what other problems or challenges is the Chinese art market facing at the moment?

Although the Chinese art market has had a very high-paced development in the past twenty years, it is still relatively young and unstable when compared to the international art market. In the current stage, the Chinese art market is still bothered by the problem of faked artwork and honesty of the auction houses. Yet we are optimistic about the future of the Chinese art market, which needs some time and investment to achieve a better and healthier development.

Elizabeth Brown

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Related Topics: Chinese contemporary art, auctions, art business, interviews with experts, events in Hong Kong

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