Christie’s in Shanghai



In the long-running global race between the world’s most powerful auction houses, Christie’s has just won one of the laps with its first sale in Shanghai.

Founded in 1766, Christie’s specialized in sales of 18th and 19th century art until the late 20th century. Along with Sotheby’s, it contributed to establishing London as the primary locus of the European art market. The firm opened a branch in New York on 5 December 1977.

Nowadays, China is just as important as New York in the development strategies of the major auction houses. Sotheby’s was the first Western auction firm to establish itself there in September 2012 under a joint venture agreement with Beijing Gehua Cultural Development Group, Sotheby’s (Beijing) Auction Co. Ltd.. Indeed its first Beijing sale on 27 September 2012 was the culmination of 17 years of unsuccessful attempts to set up shop in the Chinese capital. Thus, despite high taxes on Chinese art market and protectionist laws vis-à-vis foreign companies, Sotheby’s became the only auction house to enjoy use of the free port established in the Tianzhu free trade zone, giving it excellent local opportunities. Now Christie’s is competing with its rival in China, and, moreover, on an independent footing. Until now (and since 2005), Christie’s had been operating in Hong Kong and subcontracting its auction activities in mainland China to a Chinese partner. Christie’s launch in Shanghai represents a first in the history of the market and a significant sign of openness from the Chinese authorities.

In order to attract the attention of as broad a public as possible, the two giants of the global art market have both adopted variety as their primary sales policy (wine, antiques, Asian art and Western art…). For the time being they are testing the market and gently bringing Asian buyers towards Western signatures. In December 2012, Sotheby’s organised a sale in Hong Kong that mixed a few French artists with a selection of Asian artists (a Table d’Or by Yves KLEIN sold for the equivalent of $23,000 and a Claude LALANNE table sculpture, Ginkgo Biloba, fetched the equivalent of $116,000).

For its first sale in Shanghai, Christie’s proposed a wide variety of objects with 42 lots that included jewellery, wine and a small selection of the finest Contemporary Asian art and Modern or Post-War Western art. Among these, a still life, dated 1963, by the Italian painter Giorgio MORANDI (estimated $895,400 – $1,269,840) failed to sell; however a small oil-on-panel by Pablo Picasso fetched a very good price (Homme assis [1969], 56.6 x 28.7 cm, estimated $732,600 – $1,009,360, fetched $1.9 million including fees). More surprisingly, a stylish black mobile by Alexander CALDER sold in its estimated range (Diamond Dust Shoes, estimated $1 million – $1.56 million, fetched $1.589 million including fees). Andy WARHOL, a signature now as indispensable as that of Pablo PICASSO for any ‘prestigious’ sale, was also represented with a painting of shoes in Pop colours and embellished with diamond dust (Diamond Dust Shoes, estimated $618,640 – $814,000). Both the subject and the estimate represented a double challenge for Christie’s since Warhol’s record in Asia was set by the complete series of portraits of Mao for a sum equivalent to $706,200 (Mao [1972], Christie’s, Hong Kong, 29 May, 2010). In the end Diamond Dust Shoes attracted strong bidding and changing hands for more than $797,000 including fees. The Chinese market is waking up to the stars of the Western art market but still has a very long way to go before it reaches Western summits such as the $64 million excluding fees ($71.72 million including fees) for Warhol’s 1963 Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) at Christie’s, New York, on 16 May 2007.

The star lots at Christie’s sale on 26 September 2013 were therefore not Western but Asian signatures. Thus, Bicycle by ZENG Fanzhi’s, China’s most expensive artist at the moment, fetched the equivalent of $1.549 million including costs (estimated $944,240 – $1,432,640) and I Nyoman MASRIADI’s Fatman demolished its estimate by fetching more than $757,000 including fees (estimated $214,556 – $264,069). And as for SUI Jianguo’s series of sculptures subverting both Western and Chinese cultural codes, it sold for close to $2 million including fees (Clothes Veins Study Series, $1.985 million, estimated $1,650,429 – $2,475,644).

China’s new and booming art market is led by Poly International Auction which is celebrating its 8th year of activity and which has experienced spectacular growth. The country’s second auctioneer in terms of sales turnover is China Guardian Auctions, which started operating in 1993. In 2012, these two leaders generated a combined sales turnover of $1.052 billion from art alone. The next revolution in the Chinese market could involve the expansion of private sales. This service was not allowed due to legal restrictions on auction sales; but the Chinese auction houses nevertheless organized some transactions confidentially before the implementation of Poly International’s VIP service.