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A woman walks past a mascot of the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, which continues until Thursday. Photo: EPA-EFE

Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips target China’s millennial art collectors as market grows 35 per cent to US$13.4 billion in 2021

  • The world’s top three auction houses are exhibiting artwork at the China International Import Expo ahead of the Art021, West Bund Art & Design Fair and fall auctions
  • They are deepening their presence in China, taking part in events and exhibitions and meeting young Chinese collectors’ preferences

Western auction houses are strengthening their presence in China, the world’s second-largest art market, to woo the growing horde of collectors on the mainland.

They are opening or expanding their headquarters, taking part in an increasing number of exhibitions, holding auctions and curating artwork to cater to millennial collectors.

The world’s top three auction houses – Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips – are taking part in the China International Import Expo (CIIE) alongside luxury groups and fashion brands. Overall, a dozen companies taking part in the expo have showcased over 100 pieces of artwork, including paintings, cultural relics and other collectibles valued at around US$175 million, according to figures provided by the participants.

“We have noticed since around 2017 that domestic collectors started showing greater interest in Western and Chinese contemporary art and young artists,” said Zhang Wenjia, the regional director of Phillips China.

Phillips’ booth at the CIIE features a painting of the cartoon character SpongeBob by the American artist Brian Donnelly, who is also known as Kaws. Photo: Handout

She added that a growing number of millennial collectors on the mainland are paying increasing attention to contemporary artists.

Mainland China has seen an exponential growth in art sales. In 2021, the US was the world’s top art market, accounting for some 43 per cent of sales by value, according to the 2022 Art Basel Art Market Report. Greater China, comprising the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau came second with a 20 per cent market share. Sales in the region jumped 35 per cent year on year to US$13.4 billion in 2021, according to the report.
Phillips, the 226-year-old British auction house, has several paintings on display, including one featuring the cartoon character SpongeBob by American artist Brian Donnelly, also known as Kaws. Works by another young American artist Lucy Bull and Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama, known for her polka-dot pumpkins, are also on show.

Zhang said their upgraded Asia headquarters in Hong Kong, spread over 6,000 square metres, would open next spring. The Russian-owned firm has leased space in the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority’s main administrative block flanking the M+ museum.

Sotheby’s also said it would open its China headquarters in Shanghai, signifying the importance of the mainland market. The New York-headquartered firm did not provide details.

It said that its online marketplace – Buy Now at CIIE – would provide Chinese consumers with luxury goods and decorative collectibles from categories including jewellery, contemporary art and fashion. The platform, first launched in 2020, will be available in Hong Kong and mainland China towards the end of this year and early 2023, respectively.

London-headquartered Christie’s is also showing paintings from Kusama along with works from Chinese-Canadian artist Matthew Wong and French artist Marc Chagall.
Visitors at the fifth China International Import Expo admire Chinese-Canadian artist Matthew Wong’s work at the Sotheby’s booth. Photo: Yaling Jiang

Since launching on social e-commerce platform Xiaohongshu to deepen connection with millennial collectors, Christie’s has garnered around 150,000 followers, the most among its peers, with personal stories of auctioneers and detailed explanation of auction items.

“As the first international fine-art auction company to be granted a licence to operate independently in mainland China, we have always been committed to the Chinese market,” said Rebecca Yang Yuancao, Christie’s China chairwoman. “We also hope to do our part for the market together with art fairs, galleries and museums in November.”

The CIIE exhibition coincides with many art events in Shanghai this month. Art021 and West Bund Art & Design Fair will both be held from November 10 to 13, while many auction houses will hold their autumn auctions this month.

China looks to draw more foreign capital during Shanghai import trade fair

Separately, exhibitors said the number of visitors to the CIIE this year has fallen sharply from last year because of the strengthened Covid-19 pandemic curbs to guard against the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

All participants have to be fully vaccinated and provide records of negative nucleic acid tests taken within 24 hours of entering the venue, compared with a 48-hour requirement last year. Masks are also mandatory for people taking part in the event.

Not many potential buyers are visiting because of the antivirus control measures, said Bing Ha, a sales manager with Hong Kong exhibitor Sun Yik Food.

“The zero-Covid policy remains a big hurdle for overseas companies to expand businesses on the mainland market,” he said.

The annual trade event, which was established in 2018 amid a simmering trade war with the US, ends on Thursday.