Art market

Christie's leads the way as auction houses expand into China

But the local market is contracting


Taiwan's auction market is only eleven years old. The $18.2 million market is divided fairly neatly between four houses: Christie's (29%), Ching Shiun (27%) Unique (24%) and the newest and most enterprising, Ravenel (20%).

Each house has its own characteristic. Chiung Shiun is based in Taiching and draws on a Southern Taiwan client as well as the extensive connections of its owners, the Lin family, who can trace their roots in Taiwan back to the 18th century. Unique concentrates on guohua (traditional Chinese brush painting) and Ravenel auction, amongst other things, fine wines and French Moderns.

Two of these houses, Ravenel and Unique, have ambitions to expand beyond the limited confines of the Taiwanese auction market, and both are in the process of making inroads into the China market, to which Sotheby's and Christie's have very limited access.

Unique already owns the Jenya antique gallery in Beijing and has teamed up with the China based Rongbau auction house. It held its first auction in Beijing on 7 November. The company's stated ambition is to compete with Duo Yun Xuan auction house in Shanghai, a leader in the field of traditional Chinese art.

Clara Kuo, president of Ravenel, is even more ambitious for her company and plans to launch the auction house in the mainland this year, in addition to setting up an outpost in Singapore in order to corner, specifically, the Chinese contemporary art auction market.

Expansion is widely seen as a way to combat the contracting local market. This year has seen a dramatic drop in the value of Chinese antiques in Taiwan, something which can be attributed as much to oversupply as it can to a decline in the island's economic performance. Sotheby's stopped holding its biennial auctions in Taipei last year. Bobbie Hu (director of Sotheby's Taiwan) suggested it was due to re-structuring within Sotheby's, but a more likely explanation is the poor returns from Taiwan's market. The company is, nevertheless, still sourcing work and nurturing clients in Taiwan.

Heritage Arts International is a good example of a recent auction house casualty, conceived in the days of heady growth, and unable to cope in more economically stringent times. Set up in 1989, Heritage sold out to four galleries in 1995, closing down last year.

The decline in the auction market in Taiwan is symptomatic of a wider economic malaise. Taiwan's macro economy performance dipped in the third and fourth quarters of 2000. The domestic economy is, at present, a cause of fiscal as well as political concern to the Taiwanese. It has resulted in the exodus of capital and manufacturing plants from Taiwan to China and it is this exodus or expansion which has started to characterise the Taiwanese art market as well.

The days of huge profit margins and record prices for Taiwanese painting (See The Art Newspaper, No.33, December 1993, p. 31) have disappeared and the fallout is affecting all parts of the art market. Taiwan's major commercial galleries: Hanart, Dimensions (experiencing financial problems because of a dramatic decrease in the profits of its main profit making arm), Galerie Pierre in Taichung, Caves, Lung-men and Lin & Keng have made attempts to look beyond the confines of the island's art world and therefore offset the effects of a slowdown in local demand.

Hanart is headquartered in Hong Kong (where it deals in the work of the Taiwanese master, Ju Ming) and has recently opened a third branch, Asia Contemporary Art, in London's West End, close to the British Museum and the School of Oriental and African Studies. The London gallery has broadened to include all contemporary art from Asia. Dimensions has offices in Paris and New York, Lili Lee Friedlich, director of Lung-men, has close associations in America and Lin & Keng go regularly to Shanghai for the art fair where they re-introduce the Chinese to the work of Zao Wou-ki.

The self sufficiency of Taiwan's art market has been vigorously tested since the Asian Economic Flu of 1998, but there is evidence of clear strategic planning from many of its leading art and auction companies which should ensure that it survives, albeit in a regional as opposed to local form.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Auction houses expand into China'