How Christie’s and Sotheby’s Court Chinese Art Collectors

on August 19 2014 | in Art & Auction | by | with No Comments

china luxury, art, auction

Sotheby’s and Christie’s are looking abroad for new art collectors and setting their sights on Asia.

With the value of art growing and interest in art collecting increasing among the world’s wealthy, the auction houses have hired teams of experts to find and attract potential buyers. A third of the 1,550 people employed at Sotheby’s are in charge of tending to at least 9,000 top collectors. Brett Gorvy, contemporary specialist for Christie’s, monitors a list of around 141 collectors who can afford to spend at least $50 million on pieces of art, derived from information in the auction house’s database of clients.

Gorvy has maintained the list for fifteen years; when he started it, most of the collectors were in their 70s and worked for major companies, but now the clientele consists mostly of individuals in their 40s and 50s who run corporations of their own. Around 26 of the collectors on the list today are from Asia. Though collectors from China purchased primarily Asian art only a decade ago, demand has since diversified.

But drawing new buyers isn’t simply a matter of sending out auction catalogs anymore — it has become an intensely personal enterprise. Last May, Christie’s hosted a group of 18 new Chinese collectors in New York City. The guests were treated to guided tours through the Museum of Modern Art, VIP tickets to a local art fair, and fine dining in Christie’s Rockefeller Center ballroom.

The group also watched Christie’s major spring sales of contemporary, modern, and Impressionist art from two reserved skyboxes above the house’s saleroom. Christie’s specialist Xin Li stood in the saleroom and fielded bids via telephone from the group of collectors, who placed bids on at least half of the top 10 most expensive works. The group ultimately bid on or won “a gallery’s worth of masterpieces,” according to the Wall Street Journal, including a $26 million Alexander Calder sculpture of a “Fish” (a symbol of prosperity in China) and a $66.2 million abstract painting by Mark Rothko.

“We didn’t know anyone from that group a year ago,” said Steven Murphy, CEO of Christie’s.

Auction courtship continues even after the collector has purchased the piece. Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, sent every art book she could find that included a reproduction of Claude Monet’s “Japanese Bridge” and shipped them to the new Chinese client who had just won the $15.8 million original. Wong also arranges museum tours for her clients as needed.

Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have expanded their China outreach, hiring staff “known for nurturing long ties to important local families.” Sotheby’s efforts bore fruit several weeks ago, when Chinese buyers purchased four of the most expensive works in the house’s Old Master series, including a $3.8 million swan-decorated clock from 1790 and the $13.2 million George Stubbs painting “Tygers at Play.”

Wong made it a point to introduce herself to the winner of the swan clock, a first-time collector.

“I told him how great it was,” she said, “and I gave him tips on how to clean the clock.”

image credit: sothebys

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