Sotheby’s has become the first international fine art auction house to conduct a sale in mainland China since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. In a largely symbolic affair Thursday just a single lot was put on the block at the Millennium Hall of the World Art Museum in west Beijing, a sculpture entitled “Self and Self Shadow” by Wang Huaiqing (born 1944), an artist hitherto best known for his bold abstract paintings. The sale went off without a hitch, with “Self and Self Shadow” being hammered down at RMB 1.4 million ($222,222), comfortably within the pre-sale estimated range of RMB 1-1.5 million.
The auction was staged in celebration of Sotheby’s joint venture, signed only last week with the Chinese state-owned Beijing Gehua Art Company, to create Sotheby’s (Beijing) Auction Co., Ltd. It was entering that joint venture that allowed the historic sale to take place, as Chinese regulations still prevent international houses from conducting auctions on their own on the mainland.
The joint venture with Gehua has given Sotheby’s a foothold in the Chinese art market — but more crucially has secured it a partnership with Gehua’s parent company, the GeHua Cultural and Development Group, which is building the Chinese mainland’s first Freeport, which is slated to open within the Tianzhu Free Trade Zone near Beijing airport by late 2013. Courtesy of its deal with Gehua, Sotheby’s will be the only international house allowed to conduct auctions or selling exhibitions within the Freeport, which will enjoy tax advantages similar to those applying in Hong Kong.
Although the importance of this Freeport to the Chinese art market has been somewhat overstated — as it is only while goods remain within the port that they will be exempt from China’s customs duties — it should still generate significant business, as it will provide both a convenient sales venue and storage facility for mainland Chinese clients.
Even under the new joint venture, however, Sotheby’s will still be prevented by Chinese law from participating in significant sectors of the Chinese mainland art market. Chinese antiques, such as porcelain, calligraphy, and other works of art will be off limits, but as Sotheby’s CEO William Ruprecht told AFP that the law still allows the company to trade in such significant sectors as Chinese contemporary and modern art, not to mention Western art, jewellery, and watches.
Meanwhile, just as Sotheby’s enters the mainland market, China’s oldest fine art auction company, China Guardian, prepares for its first auction in Hong Kong next month. The sale on October 7 will mark the first time that a Chinese mainland auction house has gone head to head with its international competitors.