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Auction houses avoid Chinese New Year clash

Growing Asian purchasing power precipitates alterations to sales calendars

Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips have changed the dates of their February auctions in London—from the start of the month to its final week and the beginning of March. The new schedule avoids a clash with Chinese New Year, a one-week public holiday in China that next year will last from 27 January to 2 February.

The first to announce the change was Christie’s, at a press conference after last week’s New York sales in response to a question about how Asian clients gave the evening sales a much-needed boost. A spokesperson later added: “We have taken the innovative step of moving our curated sale to Hong Kong this season. Sustained activity from Asian clients has been underpinned by investment in our activities in the region. The changes in the sales calendar are about giving clients regular opportunities to collect and balancing out the global sales–the dates were previously set over a decade ago.”

Moving the curated sale to Hong Kong shows how significant business in Asia is becoming. In light of this shift in global purchasing power, the date change seems natural. “We wouldn’t hold auctions on Christmas day,” says Jussi Pylkkanen, the global president of Christie’s. The house opened a new central Beijing flagship office in October, with an exhibition on Pablo Picasso and the Chinese artists Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi.

Christie’s held its first auction in mainland China in 2013

A strategic location not currently intended for hosting sales, it is Christie’s second venue in mainland China, joining its Shanghai branch that opened in October 2014. In 2013, Christie’s became the first international auction house authorised to hold independent sales in China (in Shanghai) through a licence granted by the Chinese government.

A Sotheby’s spokesperson says that while Chinese New Year "played a part, it was really one of a number of factors” in the decision, including fatigue from the hectic autumn art schedule that culminates with Art Basel in Miami Beach in December. But the auction house is growing ties with China like never before. During the latest quarterly earnings call to investors, the company’s chief executive officer Tad Smith announced an addition to the Sotheby’s board in the form of Linus Cheung, a Hong Kong Telecom executive. “Linus Cheung hails from a crucial part of our world, Greater China, that will be the foundation of a bright future for Sotheby’s,” Smith said. Meanwhile, back in July, China’s biggest life insurance company Chen Dongshen bought a 13.5% stake in Sotheby’s, making it the house’s largest shareholder. The auction house opened a representative office in Shanghai in 1994 and held its first travelling exhibition in Shanghai in 1995. The Beijing office was set up in 2007.

Phillips has joined the fray and is hosting its first-ever auctions in Hong Kong on 27-29 November. Its Modern and contemporary art sale includes works by major Western artists, such as Roy Lichtenstein and Gerhard Richter. “You cannot underestimate the importance of Asian buyers at auction and increasingly as consigners too,” says Matt Carey-Williams, Phillips’ deputy chairman of Europe and Asia. “Twenty years ago their footprint was very small in terms of Western contemporary art, now it’s huge. When Ed [Dolman] took over at Phillips, one of his primary objectives was to establish a base in Hong Kong.”

While prevailing economic uncertainties this year have caused a slowdown in the Asian art market, the area remains one of growing importance. “Our Hong Kong consignments are only down 12% on last year, much less than the global average,” Pylkkanen says.

This is not the first time auctions have been moved to accommodate festive seasons. When the organisers of Frieze London and Frieze Masters moved their dates to avoid a clash with the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, the auction houses, whose October sales are timed to coincide with the fairs and therefore capitalise on the influx of collectors in town, quickly followed suit.

London evening sale schedule

Phillips

20th century and contemporary art: early March, date TBA

Sotheby’s

Impressionist and Modern art: 1 March

The Surreal Sale: 1 March

Post-war and contemporary art: 8 March

Christie’s

Impressionist and Modern art: 28 February

The Art of the Surreal: 28 February

Post-war and contemporary art: 7 March