Christie’s First Mainland China Auction Earns $25 Million

Christie’s first mainland China auction raised $25 million, with sales led by a Picasso, Patek Philippe watches and bottles of Chateau Lafite.

The Shanghai auction late yesterday exceeded its pre-sale estimate of $16 million. The top lot was a diamond and ruby necklace that sold for a hammer price of $2.94 million.

Though the 39-lot sale was small by international standards, the event was as much about marketing and gaining access to the growing ranks of high-net-worth Chinese by the London-based house.

“As Europe was in the 19th century and the U.S. in the 20th century, China will become the most important market in 20 or 30 years,” Francois Pinault, the founder of Christie’s owner Kering, said just before the sale.

Still, the most lucrative part of the Chinese art and antiques market -- valued at $14.3 billion in 2012 by the European Fine Art Foundation -- is off-limits to foreign auction houses under a law to protect cultural relics.

Asked when the Chinese government might relax this restriction, Christie’s chief executive Steven Murphy said “We are very happy to be in China with the myriad offerings on offer tonight, and it is not for us to ask or wonder about the restrictions.”

Spontaneous Applause

Judging from the excitement last night, the inaugural sale was a success. During a prolonged battle for a jadeite Buddha that sold for 5.5 million yuan ($900,000) compared with a high estimate of 800,000 yuan, the room of more than 600 people erupted into applause after every subsequent bid instead of waiting for the hammer to go down.

As Chinese collectors begin to venture beyond traditional Chinese paintings and antiques to collect Western works, they have shown a strong preference for blue-chip artists.

The top work of art was a 1969 painting by Pablo Picasso entitled “Homme Assis” (Seated Man) that sold for 9.6 million yuan, compared with a high estimate of 6.2 million after protracted bidding by five mainland buyers in the room. A synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink by Andy Warhol sold for 4 million yuan.

A lot containing a double magnum and a case of 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild sold for 550,000 yuan, while an 18 carat pink gold Patek Philippe tourbillon wristwatch sold for 3.5 million yuan.

Giorgio Morandi

All but one lot sold, depriving Christie’s of a “white glove sale” when a modern painting by Giorgio Morandi with a low estimate of $850,000 failed to find a buyer.

Christie’s also held private sales of works by Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and a work by Picasso valued at $12 million. A private sale of jewelry includes a 75.97 carat, D flawless diamond valued at $21 million. Results have not been released.

Sotheby’s will be holding its first auction in Beijing in December.

Meanwhile, mainland Chinese auction houses have been expanding abroad. Beijing-based Poly International Auction Co. and China Guardian Auctions Co. began holding sales in Hong Kong last year, where the absence of import duties or trade restrictions has made the free port one of the world’s most important auction hubs.

“A lot of the big players want to come to Hong Kong because it’s a more level playing field, the market here is more transparent, and the bidders in the room are more diverse,” James Hennessy, a Hong Kong-based dealer said before the sale. “The mainland has a long way to go to catch up to Hong Kong.”

(Frederik Balfour is a reporter-at-large for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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