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  • Christie's Going, Going to China to Hold Auctions
    22.10.2005 CAROL VOGEL - www.nytimes.com

    Wu Guanzhong's "White Poplar Woods" will be for sale at Christie's first auction in Beijing, on Nov. 3.

    Correction Appended

    Determined to be the first Western auction house to capitalize firsthand on China's booming art market, Christie's has signed an agreement to conduct auctions in Beijing, company officials said. And to meet Chinese government restrictions on foreign businesses holding auctions on their own, it has teamed up with a newly formed Beijing auction house called Forever.

    Under the agreement, settled this week, Christie's will license its name, provide experts and oversee the entire auction process, from the acquisition of works for sale to the printing and design of the catalog. Its first sale - 450 examples of modern and contemporary Chinese art - is scheduled for Nov. 3 at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing and is expected to bring $10 million.

    "It's important for us to put down stakes and let people know we've arrived," said Edward Dolman, Christie's chief executive. "This is a huge market and we're building on the tremendous sales in Hong Kong."

    In May and June, Mr. Dolman said, Christie's sales in Hong Kong totaled nearly $130 million and attracted 4,500 people a day. They came to view everything from classic Chinese ceramics and jade jewelry to modern and contemporary painting.

    The number of moneyed collectors in China is growing as fortunes are being made in construction, technology, manufacturing, real estate and other industries. According to figures published by China's 10 leading auction houses, sales have risen from less than $100 million in 2000 to about $1 billion in 2005.

    China is not a new territory for either Sotheby's or Christie's. Both auction houses opened offices in Shanghai in 1994 to identify property to sell and to contact prospective buyers. Two years later, Christie's opened an office in Beijing. Sotheby's has had a representative there for the past year. As for Hong Kong, Sotheby's has been holding sales in the former British colony since 1973, and Christie's since 1986.

    Year by year, the number of Asians buying at auction is increasing. Executives at Sotheby's report that in 2004 its Asian clients spent more than $275 million at its salesrooms around the world, up from just over $100 million in 2003.

    Asian artworks are also becoming more popular and expensive. In July, Christie's set a record for an Asian artwork at auction when a London dealer bought a 14th-century blue-and-white jar for $27.7 million.

    Now Christie's and Sotheby's are focusing on how best to capitalize on the Chinese market. But while Christie's has entered an agreement with a Chinese partner in Beijing, Sotheby's is taking a more cautious approach. "We're putting out feelers and will be watching Christie's closely to see what we can learn," said Henry Howard-Sneyd, managing director of Sotheby's in Asia and Australia. "But since holding auctions in China has to be done through intermediaries, we will see how things develop."

    Mr. Howard-Sneyd, who is based in Hong Kong, added that the company's staffing throughout Asia was increasing by 15 percent to 20 percent. "The Chinese love fine wines, jewelry, Western furniture, 19th-century paintings as well as contemporary Chinese art," he said.

    Chinese contemporary art is one of the fastest-growing segments of this market, attracting buyers from around the world. Sotheby's is planning to hold its first sale of contemporary Chinese art in March, during Asia Week in New York. Xiaoming Zhang, the expert in charge of the sale, comes to Sotheby's from the Guggenheim Museum, where she helped organize its giant show "China: 5,000 Years" in 1998. She was later part of a Guggenheim team exploring possible satellite programs around the world. Ms. Zhang is now traveling through China looking for property to sell.

    "It's not easy," she said in a telephone interview. "The demand is far greater than the supply."

    Chinese contemporary artists generally fall into two categories: in the first group are those whose style is based on traditional Chinese images and forms, like ink-wash landscapes, harking back to the 17th and 18th centuries. One example is Wu Guanzhong, who produced "White Poplar Woods," a modern twist on a densely painted forest that is expected to sell for $770,000 to $900,000 at Forever/Christie's next month. Another is the artist Lin Fengmian, who studied in France and has painted scenes like "Opera Figures," a scroll estimated to fetch $154,800 to $232,300 next month in Beijing.

    The second category consists of an important group of Chinese artists whose work is based in Pop and conceptual art and who have a wide international following. Sotheby's plans to sell their work in New York in March. This group includes the conceptual artist Huang Yongping, the subject of a retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis on view through Jan. 15.

    The group also includes Zhang Huan, a Chinese-born artist who lives in New York, where he has shown at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, Deitch Projects in SoHo and elsewhere. Perhaps the most celebrated of them all is Cai Guo-Qiang, known to New Yorkers for beaming a rainbow over the East River three years ago for the opening of the Museum of Modern Art's temporary exhibition space in Queens, as well as for "Light Cycle," a pyrotechnic display that lighted up the sky above Central Park for its 150th anniversary. Over the summer Mr. Cai was also the curator of the Venice Biennale's first official Chinese pavilion, sponsored in large part by the Chinese government.

    Correction: Oct. 22, 2005:

    An article in The Arts yesterday about Christie's plans to hold auctions in Beijing misstated the number of works in the first sale, scheduled for Nov. 3. It is 450, not 45.