Chi­tralekha Basu

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - POLICY REVIEW - Con­tact the writer at basu@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

the Chi­nese main­land now ac­tive in the city, sold one for HK$23 mil­lion. Their to­tal haul at the end of the 2017 spring auc­tions was an im­pres­sive HK$326 mil­lion.

Poly and China Guardian are in the fore­front of main­land auc­tion houses that have found a firm foot­ing in the al­ready crowded Hong Kong art mar­ket within a short time. Other names in reck­on­ing in­clude Han­hai Auc­tion, Coun­cil (Kuang­shi), ChengXuan Auc­tions, HuaChen Auc­tions, Sun­gari In­ter­na­tional Auc­tion, etc. Gary Yee, who founded a lo­cal auc­tion house some years back but has since moved on to run a con­sul­tancy that helps auc­tion houses de­velop mar­ket­ing strate­gies, says more “medium-sized” auc­tion houses from the main­land and Hong Kong keep open­ing in the city and for all of them to co­ex­ist in a small space, it is nec­es­sary to de­velop niche in­ter­ests, and en­cour­age clients to look be­yond the fa­mil­iar fare.

“I in­tro­duced Song Dy­nasty (960-1279) ce­ram­ics as a spe­cial­ized cat­e­gory to the Hong Kong mar­ket in 2013,” says Yee. “Now we are work­ing with dif­fer­ent auc­tion houses to in­tro­duce Chi­nese ar­chaic bronzes and an­cient Silk Road art.”

Silk Road seems to be the new buzz word in Hong Kong’s auc­tion scene, in­spired, it might be as­sumed, at least in part, by the Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s call to re­vive the an­cient trade route con­nect­ing China all the way to Cen­tral Asia and Europe around the Mediter­ranean Sea. Ni­cholas Wil­son, who heads the Chi­nese Ce­ram­ics and Works of Art Depart­ment at China Guardian Hong Kong, men­tions his com­pany hosted a sym­po­sium ear­lier in 2017 “with the idea of pro­mot­ing art that passed through the an­cient Silk Road”. that is not nec­es­sar­ily look­ing to buy big-ticket pieces. “Whereas Christie’s and Sotheby’s are more fo­cused on just sell­ing the top end of the mar­ket, we en­cour­age all kinds of ob­jects to be sold through us,” says Wil­son.

Although the lead­ing main­land auc­tion houses like China Guardian and Poly now have bases in dif­fer­ent parts of the world, they deal pri­mar­ily in Chi­nese art, cater­ing mostly to a Chi­nese au­di­ence.

“Typ­i­cally, our clients are main­land Chi­nese with domi­ciles in other places. They buy with the money they earned abroad and keep the pieces out­side of the main­land. And Hong Kong of course is a great place to store art. There’s no tax to pay and it’s easy to trans­port the pieces from here,” says Wil­son, re­fer­ring to the city’s ob­vi­ous ad­van­tage in be­ing the world’s big­gest con­tainer port.

Alex Chang, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Poly Auc­tion Hong Kong, too at­tributes the stel­lar rise of his com­pany’s pro­file in Hong Kong to the city’s strate­gic lo­ca­tion and general open­ness. Do­ing business in the city helps him stay con­nected with his net­work of buy­ers in “Taiwan, South­east Asia, Ja­pan and South Korea as well as a grow­ing num­ber of col­lec­tors from Europe and the United States”. The city’s “in­clu­sive cul­ture”, Chang points out, is con­ducive to “healthy in­ter­ac­tions be­tween art gal­leries, art fairs and auc­tion houses which will fur­ther ex­pand the mar­ket”.

The ex­po­sure to this con­flu­ence of art and ideas from around the world has in­spired main­land auc­tion houses to broaden their range. Chang says Poly has been of­fer­ing “artists from Ja­pan, South Korea and South­east Asia, in which more and more Chi­nese and Asian col­lec­tors are show­ing in­ter­est”. Wil­son of China Guardian has plans to in­tro­duce mid-20th cen­tury Scan­di­na­vian fur­ni­ture cre­ated by the Dan­ish de­signer Hans Weg­ner who “did a cou­ple of chairs based on Chi­nese de­sign”.

Broad­en­ing hori­zons

As more main­land auc­tion houses pop up against the Hong Kong sky­line, dip­ping into a com­mon pool of buy­ers, one won­ders if there’s enough in terms of art and cap­i­tal to sus­tain the cur­rent spate of en­er­getic buy­ing and sell­ing in the long run.

“If there is any­where in the world where there is a vol­ume of col­lec­tors with the ca­pac­ity to ab­sorb a lot of art, I cer­tainly think Hong Kong is one of those,” says Ed­ward Wilkin­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Bon­hams Asia, “be­cause you got two mas­sive pop­u­la­tions, Chi­nese and In­dian, sit­ting on Hong Kong’s doorstep, not to men­tion the rest of South­east Asia.”

He be­lieves Hong Kong to­day is an evolved mar­ket­place.

“To­day the com­mu­nity of buy­ers is far more in­formed than to go for some­thing just be­cause the words Qing or Ming was be­ing men­tioned,” says Wilkin­son.

“The pres­ence of Chi­nese main­land auc­tion houses in Hong Kong is a very pos­i­tive thing for the mar­ket be­cause it cer­tainly gives a clear in­di­ca­tion that Hong Kong is a pre­ferred city to con­duct trans­ac­tions in terms of the le­gal ap­pa­ra­tus that’s in place, the (pre­vail­ing) rule of law and peo­ple hav­ing a feel­ing of safety and sat­is­fac­tion,” he adds.

Like Chang of Poly and Wil­son of China Guardian, Wilkin­son too thinks the way for­ward for auc­tion houses do­ing business in the SAR is to look be­yond art from Chi­nese main­land.

“I am in­ter­ested in see­ing greater rep­re­sen­ta­tion from say the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent, or an­tiq­ui­ties from South­east Asia, all of which are barely rep­re­sented here. For me that’s an in­ter­est­ing space that has po­ten­tial.”

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