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Sotheby’s Launches Chinese Contemporary Art Division

Amid the dynamic growth of the market for Asian art, Sotheby’s has launched a new department for Chinese contemporary art and announced an inaugural auction to be held in March in Manhattan. Xiaoming Zhang, former manager of strategic development for Asia at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, has been appointed as a specialist.

NEW YORK—Amid the dynamic growth of the market for Asian art, Sotheby’s has launched a new department for Chinese contemporary art and announced an inaugural auction to be held in March in Manhattan. Xiaoming Zhang, former manager of strategic development for Asia at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, has been appointed as a specialist.

“With the opening of this new department in New York and our first auction, we will be establishing a global presence in this exciting and fast-developing field,” says Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby’s managing director of Asia and Australasia operations, who is based in Hong Kong. Looking to the future, Sneyd says the house intends to hold two sales of Chinese contemporary art annually, to coincide with its Asian sales in New York.

Sotheby’s began holding sales of Chinese contemporary art in Hong Kong in 2004, responding to what the house describes as “a dramatic increase in client demand for such work.” The first two sales, in October 2004 and May 2005, realized $2.9 million and $5.2 million, respectively. The third sale, last October, brought a record $9.2 million total.

Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have moved to capitalize on the rapidly growing demand for Chinese art both inside and outside China. For the most part, only Chinese companies have been permitted to sell at auctions in mainland China, with Christie’s and Sotheby’s restricted to selling in Hong Kong, a free port.

Though changes are evolving slowly and there are still strict rules about what types of property a foreign auctioneer can deal in, a Dec. 11, 2004 rule, passed in the wake of China’s admission to the World Trade Organization, now permits foreign auction houses to set up shop in mainland China (see ANL, 1/4/05).

Last fall Christie’s teamed up with newly established Beijing auction house Forever, an important step in gaining access to the mainland market (see ANL, 10/25/05). The inaugural sale, held Nov. 3, realized $12 million.

The market for Asian art in New York continues to draw strong prices and high totals. Says Sotheby’s specialist Zhang: “We expect that our Chinese contemporary offerings will have crossover appeal to not only the Western buyer . . . but to the Asian buyer as well—particularly Chinese buyers eager to embrace their own contemporary culture and art.”

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