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”.
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.”