Auction house paints China’s rise
The evolution of the art auction business in the past two decades has been nothing short of remarkable, says Chairman of Asian Art at international auction house Christie’s, Jonathan Stone.
But, he says the rapid rise of the Asian market — China in particular — provides the most exciting opportunity for the industry.
Stone told China Daily that when he first joined Christie’s in 1999 working on the front counter in London, it was an industry dominated by the British, North European, North American and the Japanese.
“(It was) somewhat an English ‘clubby’ world of people who grew up with old master paintings on the walls.”
But, this has quickly changed “beyond recognition”, says Stone, who has more than 20 years’ experience in the auction business.
“With the growth of the regions in Asia, in particular, China, and also Southeast Asia, as well as other regions such as Latin America and the Middle East, it becomes a really global and diversified business.”
He adds that the complexity and scale of the business continues to grow enormously, and that “Asian art has grown to be the second- or third-most revenue generating department that Christie’s has”.
Referring to the Chinese auction market, Stone says the most significant point about the emergence of Chinese buyers is how quickly they have established the knowledge and understanding about the dynamics of the auction business — in particular what artworks are good to buy.
“The speed of the educated process is remarkable.”
As for the changes in the appetite of Chinese buyers, Stone says when they first entered the market, they rarely stepped outside of their comfort zone of modern and classical Chinese paintings. But soon, their interests spread into Chinese furniture and jade. Chinese buyers’ taste in fine paintings has expanded to include a real appreciation of Western and international art, including post-war art and Impressionism works.
Stone says the opportunities presented in China are endless, and its enormous resources mean it will lead the art market in the 21st century.
The current strategy in Asia for the auction house is focused on continuing to develop its buyers, by being the bridge between Chinese people and those from other parts of Asia, who wish to acquire great art from the West. According to Stone, “our role is to facilitate those transactions”.
Pa r t o f i t s s t r a t e g y a l s o means significant investment in China, which included opening a new office in Shanghai a couple of years ago. Christie’s is also planning to open a new building and gallery space in Beijing.
“We really want the strategy to allow people to create and enjoy art, and become part of the global art market.”
Stone also emphasizes the importance of e-commerce and e-communication development of the company, and hopes to facilitate clients online.
Despite the potential in the Chinese market, Stone still recognizes the challenges that Christie’s faces. As a foreignowned auction house, the company cannot engage in transactions of culture relics in China, so one of its hurdles is to bring clients from the Chinese mainland to participate in sales outside of the region.
Marking a milestone
The celebration of the 250 th anniversary of Christie’s is being commemorated with a series of exhibitions and events at salesrooms across the globe this year.
In Asia, Stone says they will celebrate “the meeting of the East and West” in Hong Kong. Included in this was the sale event called “The Pioneers” on Nov 26 that included artworks by Asian artists in the 20 th century who lived and studied abroad in Europe.
Avant-garde artists, includ- ing Sanyu, Zhang Daqian, Zao Wou-ki and Wu Guanzhong, experienced European culture, technics, medium of art, and pushed the boundaries of Asian art.
“For us, that international perspective, the meeting of cultures of the East and West, is something we are really keen to celebrate in the 250th anniversary, recognizing the heritage and history that the company has,” Stone says.
“The Pioneers” sale totaled H K $ 3 7 7. 4 7 m i l l i o n , w i t h Sanyu’s Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase fetching a whopping HK$103.6 million.
W i t h C h r i s t i e’s h o s t i n g two seasonal sales each year, Stone says the preparation begins by compiling lists of some of the great artworks
CAPITAL IDEAS: PETER LIANG
held by collectors.
“It’s not so complicated in the way we would approach collectors,” he explains, adding that they would firstly ask collectors if they want to showcase their artworks. Then, Christie’s negotiates with collectors about how the piece will be marketed and cataloged before striking a deal.
“It’s very much about being able to work with the collectors and bring great works of art to the market.”
On the other side, Stone says they need to be aware of buyers who are looking for particularly great pieces of art, or interested in adding to their collection of a particular period or artists.
“The important thing in the business is that working with
We are dealing with the most wonderful objects. Every year, thousands of objects pass through Christie’s’ hands, so we have the privilege to be able to see, touch and feel the objects. It’s like living in a museum, but being closer to the objects.” Jonathan Stone, Christie’s chairman of Asian art
the collectors and buyers is not just season by season, but is to maintain very long term relationships.”
He says the greatest satisfaction from the job comes when a great piece of art has changed ownership and “you have a happy seller and buyer”.
Jonathan Stone, Christie’s chairman of Asian art, says interest and sales in Asian art have surged since he joined the international auction house in 1999. Hong Kong has now become a global sales hub, with Asian art among the three most popular categories. While it’s a lucrative business, he says it’s a privilege to interact with great artworks every day.