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China art auctioneers face off with foreign rivals
A similar rivalry is in store in late November, when Beijing Poly International Auction Co.’s first Hong Kong auction coincides with Christie’s fall sale.
The Chinese auction houses both have storied backgrounds.
Guardian founder Wang’s father, Zhao Ziyang, was chief of China’s Communist Party until he was purged for refusing to suppress the student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 that ended in bloodshed. Co-founder Chen also set up Taikang Life Insurance Co.
Beijing Poly International Auction Co. was founded in 2005 by the China Poly Group Corporation, a giant state owned corporation that’s best known for being a major defense contractor and which was owned by the People’s Liberation Army until 1999. Beijing Poly has a reputation for being aggressive, with a reputation for setting high estimates to attract more business, art market insiders say.
The expansions by Guardian and Poly come amid signs of cooling. China is estimated to be the world’s biggest fine art market, accounting for 30 to 41 percent of global sales, according to various estimates. But research firm ArtTactic says the market is slowing, with results showing Sotheby's, Christies, Guardian and Poly raising $1.5 billion in their spring sales, down 32 percent from the autumn 2011 auctions.
Sales volumes are “significantly down,” said Michael Frahm, who runs a London-based art advisory firm and specializes in new Asian art. “I think the overall market is cooling a little bit, and it’s definitely down from last year.”
Chinese collectors’ enthusiasm may also be damped after an investigation earlier this year by mainland authorities into tax evasion on artworks.
Sotheby's Asia CEO Kevin Ching shrugged off fears of a China slowdown, saying it was just “bumps in the road.” He said the company’s joint venture, Sotheby's (Beijing) Auction Co., is planning its first proper auction in China next spring, probably of wine, watches, jewelry and Western art.
Sotheby's invested $1.2 million for an 80 percent stake in the venture, which held a symbolic first sale last month of a single sculpture. Ching said Sotheby's spent six months in a “laborious and protracted process” trying to set up the venture.
“Different licenses, different authorities, different government levels would be approving 10,000 things that would be needed for the company to be operational,” he said.
He said he wasn’t worried about Guardian and Poly expanding into Hong Kong, saying they were “healthy competition” rather than a threat. Sotheby's, which rang up $1 billion sales in Hong Kong last year, may even benefit from the Chinese collectors that the mainland rivals bring to Hong Kong.
“Once they’ve learned how to buy in Hong Kong, how to do online bidding and phone bids, these people will come over to us very soon.”
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