Auctions Market China

Sotheby's first auction in China

Results show a taste for realist works—and tax breaks

Ai Xuan's Tibetan Girl, 1992, sold for an above-estimate $540,000 and was exempted from China's import tax

Sotheby's held its first commercial auction in China in Beijing on 1 December. The 141-lot auction, concentrating only on Modern and contemporary art, made a total Rmb227.1m ($37.3m, which includes premium, pre-sale estimate of around $21m, which did not), and broke auction records for six artists, including Zao Wou-ki and the Chinese realist painter, Li Guijun. The auction demonstrated a mainland taste for realist works from the 1980s and 1990s and benefited from a tax break that protected a handful of consignments from China's high import duties.

Of the four sub-divisions into which Sotheby's had separated the auction ('New Wave 1980-1990s', '20th century Chinese art', 'Contemporary Chinese art' and 'Contemporary Chinese ink') the realists of the first and second categories—including Yang Feiyun, Li Guijun and Chen Danqing—were the most popular. Li's work 140 Art Studio, 1985, sold for a within-estimate Rmb7.1m ($1.2m) and represented an auction record for the New Wave artist, for a work that was painted in the pivotal year for the movement.

Kevin Ching, the chief executive of Sotheby's Asia, said that the auction demonstrated the difference of taste between the mainland China and Hong Kong markets. “There isn't that much interest in Chinese realism outside of the mainland,” he said, adding that abstract works such as Zao's Abstraction, 1958, were also in demand (this went for Rmb89.7m ($14.7m), double its pre-sale estimate).

Tax break helped

Nine works in the auction also benefited from a tax-break, marked in the catalogue with a B (standing for 'Bonded Property'). Here, works that were consigned from outside the mainland were sold on a bonded basis, meaning that—provided they remained in a tax-free zone or outside the country—China's 23% import tax did not apply. Zao's top lot qualified for this break (it was sold by the Art Institute of Chicago), as did another estimate-busting work, Ai Xuan's Tibetan Girl, 1992, which went for Rmb3.3m ($540,000, est Rmb800,000-Rmb1.2m), the ninth highest price of the sale, and came from a private US collection. Only one of these lots, Wang Jinsong's One Child Policy Series No.5 and No.12 (two works), 1996, went unsold.

“The tax free zone aspect of the auction definitely helped to attract more buyers, including from overseas, as well as helping us with consignments,” said Ching.

The sale in total was 79% sold, a healthy rate, although a number of the unsold works are considered important contemporary paintings. These included three works by Yan Peiming and three of four works by Zhou Chunya, including pieces from his iconic 'Plum' and 'Taihu Rock' series.

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