Sotheby’s investor could challenge Christie’s
Sotheby’s new major Chinese shareholder may help boost its market share in China, where in recent years the auction house’s rival Christie’s has dominated, art advisers said.
Taikang Life Insurance Co’s taking of a 13.5 percent stake in the British auction house was major news in the art world at a time when many Chinese investors are diversifying into art and have made headlines for brand-name art purchases.
The owner of Taikang, tycoon Chen Dongsheng, is a prominent art collector and also the founder of China Guardian Auctions, the country’s first auction houses specializing in Chinese artwork, which many in the art world see as a boon to Sotheby’s ambitions in the country.
“It certainly gives Sotheby’s a strategic advantage in mainland China to have its largest shareholder in the country, also considering that Taikang has requested a seat on the board, [it indicates] that Taikang will be actively involved in strategic decisions that Sotheby’s will make both in China and internationally,” said Annelien Bruins, COO and senior art adviser at Tang Art Advisory in New York.
“So that is a threat to Christie’s for sure, and they may lose market share in China as a result,” she added.
Christie’s was the first international auction house to enter China and was also the first one to be granted a license to operate independently in China, which allowed it to hold auctions anywhere in China.
It is, like other foreign auction houses, barred from selling Chinese cultural relics inside the country, which means artwork from before 1949.
Grace Li, an independent art adviser, said that as a result of dedicated investments in the country, Christie’s has had a competitive edge in China over Sotheby’s. But it might be eroded with a big-name Chinese stakeholder building the latter’s brand awareness in China, she said.
“Mr Chen Dongsheng is a very intelligent businessman with vision and dreams. I tend to believe he has bigger pictures in integrating China and West art business together, which can empower both Guardian and Sotheby’s,” she said.
Similar to Christie’s, Sotheby’s can sell art made only after 1949, which blocks the auction house from “where the real money is in”, which is Chinese antiquities, ink paintings and furniture, Li said.
But with Taikang as a major shareholder with a potential seat on the board, Sotheby’s will have access to buyers, she said.
“Guardian will be interested to get more consignments of Chinese works from Western clients through Sotheby’s,” she said.
Sotheby’s storefront in London.