Sotheby's sets out its stall with first commercial auction in Beijing

Auction house hopes ban on sales of cultural relics will be lifted soon

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 November, 2013, 4:21am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 November, 2013, 4:39am

Sotheby's auction house is hoping a ban on selling Chinese cultural relics on the mainland will be lifted soon as it prepares to host its first commercial auction in Beijing.

The auction, with a pre-sale estimate of 123 million yuan (HK$155.5 million), will offer more than 140 lots of modern and contemporary Chinese art works.

But no cultural relics such as antiques and traditional Chinese paintings are included.

"We are only permitted to sell non-cultural relics," said Kevin Ching, who is Sotheby's chief executive in Asia.

He said the ban - which he believed would "soon be relaxed" - did not shake Sotheby's determination to get into China.

"The China art market is opening up," he said. "Everything changes so rapidly. We have to get in there now to start learning the special structure and logistics."

The works on sale include nine sourced overseas, among them Zao Wou-ki's Abstraction (1958) from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. It is expected to fetch 35 million to 45 million yuan.

The sale is part of Sotheby's Beijing Art Week 2013. It is displaying art worth 1.3 billion yuan including paintings by Rembrandt and Picasso, as well as 19th century Western furniture.

The events are being conducted through Sotheby's (Beijing) Auction Company, a joint venture between the auction house and the state-owned Beijing Gehua Art Company. They operate under special terms set for the bonded zone of Gehua Freeport of Culture in Beijing, where purchases are exempt from the 25 to 30 per cent in tax and duties if they stay in the zone.

Rival Christie's held its first auction in Shanghai in September, also without any cultural relics, taking in 154 million yuan.

"The 'holy grail' for Sotheby's and Christie's would be to sell Chinese art in mainland China, but the Chinese government wouldn't allow this," said an industry insider.

Ching said Sotheby's had experienced tremendous growth in the number of mainland buyers. In 2004 only 10 per cent of buyers at its Hong Kong sales came from the mainland. He said they totalled nearly 50 per cent in 2011.

However, London-based auctioneer Bonhams says it has no plans to sell in the mainland.

The auction house concluded its Hong Kong autumn sale last week, raising HK$220 million compared to its spring total of HK$172 million.

Colin Sheaf, Bonhams UK and Asia chairman, said Hong Kong's rise to become the world's third auction market after New York and London was based on the selling of Chinese art and jewellery to ethnic Chinese collectors.

He said that unless mainland restrictions changed "in a massive way", free trade zones there would have little impact on Hong Kong's status as the most important art market in Asia.