Market China

Sotheby’s sets its stall for first sale in China

Asian buyers shift to Western works, says auction house

The top lot at Sotheby's first mainland China auction is Zao Wou-ki's Abstraction, 1958 (est $5.7m-$7.4m)

As Sotheby’s prepares for its first commercial auction in mainland China (Beijing, 1 December), the auction house says there has been a shift in taste towards non-Chinese art from Asian collectors.

A Sotheby’s spokesman says that Asian buying has accounted for $2bn of works in “non-Chinese categories” since 2008, up 200% from the five-year period before that. Around 70% of this total was spent on Impressionist and contemporary works of art, and jewellery.

Since 2007, collectors from Greater China (which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan) have bought big-ticket historical works by Western artist, such as Canaletto’s A View of the Churches of the Redentore and San Giacomo, 1747-55, ($5.7m, New York, January 2012) and Claude Monet’s Nymphéas (waterlilies), 1904, (£18.5m/$36.5m, London, June 2007). A significant number of underbidders also hail from the region, including an Asian client bid who bid $73m on Edvard Munch's The Scream, 1895, which eventually sold for $120m in New York in 2012.

Nonetheless, Sotheby's forthcoming auction centres on Modern and contemporary Chinese art (with a sale estimate around $21m), while older, Western works are reserved for two of its three coinciding selling exhibitions: “Modern Masters: from Rembrandt to Picasso—Representation of the Figure in Western art” and “Age of Elegance: European Paintings, Furniture and Works of Art from the 19th century” (both 28 November-1 December).

Patti Wong, the chairman of Sotheby's Asia, says that the move into more international art, rather than the Chinese ceramics and paintings that have dominated sales in Asia to date, is a “natural progression of the market”, adding that “as more Chinese travel abroad and have the opportunities to visit museums and exhibitions, their interest develop beyond their own culture.”

Indeed, the taste of the current elite, who may have bases in Asia but are rather citizens of the world, has also moved beyond traditional, heritage objects towards those with an international appeal. Further, the auction houses need to develop demand for more Western fare since, in China, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage dictates that pre-1949 cultural relics (still the most popular items for local buyers) cannot be sold through overseas auction houses.

The 144 lots coming up at Sotheby's range in price from $3,300 to $7.4m, with the top estimate for Zao Wou-ki's Abstraction, 1958. This is being sold by the Art Institute of Chicago, which has owned the work for over 50 years, to raise funds for future acquisitions. The auction house's decision to focus on fine art for its first mainland China sale (conducted through its partnership with the state-owned GeHua Art Company) contrasts with Christie's, which held its first mainland auction in Shanghai in September with a sale that included wine, jewellery and watches, as well as paintings. This auction of 40 lots made a total $25m.

Meanwhile, the Association of Accredited Auctioneers (AAA), which represents 20 smaller UK art and antiques auction houses, is preparing for its second sale in China on 22 December, also in Beijing and in collaboration with the city's Infinity Auctions and the online bidding portal EpaiLive Auction. In April, AAA held its first mainland auction in the Xiamen Free Port Zone, during which only 25% of around 400 lots sold (total £1.5m). This proved a learning experience, says Stephan Ludwig, the executive chairman of Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions, in terms refining which objects were popular. These are reflected in the 22 December auction, which comprises silver, clocks and objets de vertu, all originating from the UK.

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