Trends Collectors Market China

Chinese art buyers turn to private sales

Deals behind closed doors have the advantage of keeping prices off the record books

As a sign of the times, earlier this year Christie's took one of its star lots, a large Chinese archaic bronze vessel believed to be around 3,000 years old, off the auction block to sell directly to a group of businessmen from the mainland for an amount understood to be up to $30m

Chinese art buyers are known for their love of the public theatre of busy international auction rooms, but many mainland purchasers are increasingly conducting their transactions privately. As a sign of the times, earlier this year Christie's took one of its star lots, a large Chinese archaic bronze vessel believed to be around 3,000 years old, off the auction block to sell directly to a group of businessmen from the mainland for an amount understood to be up to $30m (nearly double its pre-auction estimate).

While many Asian buyers have long preferred some anonymity by bidding via telephone, for mainlanders private deals offer the added advantage of keeping prices off the public record. China’s aggressive austerity and anti-corruption campaign discourages the wealthy from flaunting their high living. The policy is partly blamed for the slump in auction sales in China, which fell dramatically in 2012 (although it improved last year). In Asia, auction house revenues remain heavily skewed towards public sales, unlike in New York and London where private sales already contribute nearly half of income.

International players Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams, as well as the mainland’s China Guardian and Poly Auction have in recent months invested in pricey real estate gallery spaces as part of their Hong Kong headquarters. In its first-half earnings report published in August, Sotheby’s said that private sales transactions were up 41% on the same period last year—almost certainly boosted by Hong Kong (although their value was down).

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