Art auctions in China on the rise, leading to mounting competition

By Sebastien Blanc, AFP

BEIJING–Auction houses have sold US$700 million-worth of artwork in recent days in Hong Kong and set a series of world records, as Asia’s art market heats up anew and competition mounts between Chinese and foreign firms. Western giants Christie’s and Sotheby’s are increasingly focused on China but barred from selling the hottest item — antiques — by laws aimed at protecting cultural heritage. Meanwhile Chinese rivals Poly and Guardian have seen tremendous growth thanks to their greater freedom to act within the country, and their political ties.

And now they are seeking to challenge foreign competitors outside the mainland. So far they have been encroaching on Western art traders’ turf in Hong Kong, the former British colony turned semi-autonomous Chinese city. They held their most ambitious sales in Hong Kong so far last week, timed to capture an influx of well-heeled Chinese during a weeklong national holiday. Still, Sotheby’s, which is marking its 40th year in Asia, managed to hold on to the lion’s share of the market — and the headlines — with some exceptional items. A white diamond sold for US$30 million, breaking a world record; a Zeng Fanzhi painting that went for US$23 million set a new record for a contemporary Chinese artist; and a gilt bronze Sakyamuni Buddha did the same for Chinese statues, selling at US$30 million. The figures represent regained momentum for the Chinese art market after an unexpected contraction last year, when New York reclaimed its place from Beijing as the world’s lead city for art sales. China still led global arts and collectibles auction revenue in 2012, according to the French Conseil des Ventes Volontaires. Auction houses have been ramping up their pursuit of China’s burgeoning millionaire class. “Their first priority is to gain direct access to the wealth of the mainland Chinese, much of which wealth is contained within the borders of the country,” said Nancy Murphy, a lawyer and expert on the Chinese art market.