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China grants license to Christie's

Christie's employees stand in front of a Chinese contemporary ink painting exhibition on February 27 in New York.

Story highlights

  • Christie's received license to operate independently in mainland China
  • Christie's is the first international fine art auction house to receive license
  • Chinese art market ranked as world's fastest-growing in past 5 years

Christie's has become the first international fine art auction house to receive a licence to operate independently in mainland China, giving it an edge in the race among dealers and auctioneers to unlock the potential of the Chinese market.

The 247-year-old auction house, with sale rooms in London, Paris, New York and Hong Kong, announced on Tuesday that it plans to hold auctions in Shanghai starting this autumn. Christie's opened an office in Shanghai in 1994 and has held auctions with local firm Forever.

"The market for arts and objects in China has grown exponentially over the past decade. There are more new buyers coming into play in China than any other market in the world," Steven Murphy, Christie's chief executive, told the Financial Times. "To be in mainland China and serve those clients directly . . . has been a dream of ours for quite some time."

In the past five years, the Chinese art market ranked as the fastest-growing in the world, as well as the most important emerging market in terms of the size of its domestic sales, according to a report by TEFAF Maastricht.

After briefly overtaking the US as the largest market in the world in 2011 with 30 per cent market share, China slipped to the number two slot in 2012 behind the US with 25 per cent market share following a slowdown in growth.

Rival Sotheby's this week closed its five days of sales in wine, jewellery, Asian and Chinese art, ceramics and watches, which were watched closely following slow economic growth in 2012 and a crackdown on extravagant spending by officials. An imperial bowl broke a world record for Chinese Kangxi ceramics, selling for $9.5m.

    Christie's said that the number of clients from mainland China bidding at its global auctions has doubled since 2008. "The demand still is there because the number of clients being served is increasing. That is why we wanted to be in China with a home for Christie's, to serve those clients entering the market," Mr Murphy said.

    The agreement restricts Christie's from selling cultural relics, which predate 1911, such as valuable classical paintings and antiques.

    Christie's ignited controversy in China with the attempted sale in 2009 of two bronze sculptures of animal heads from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing that were part of the late Yves Saint-Laurent's collection. Mr Murphy said the incident did not enter the discussion.

    Both Christie's and Sotheby's have operated out of Hong Kong for several years, where a large portion of the items are sold to mainland Chinese collectors. In mainland China, Sotheby's has a deal with GeHua to conduct sales in the country. Christie's total sales in Asia were $715.1m in 2012.

    The granting of a licence to Christie's signals a determination in China to continue to open up to international businesses. This week, Xi Jinping, China's president, promised to protect global companies' interests amid concerns about discriminatory policies that hurt their operations in China.