The Three Women Behind Artnet and Poly Auction’s Joint Online Sale Explain How the Cross-Continental Collaboration Came Together

The sale is live on Poly's platform through July 25.

Vik Muniz, 20th Century Fox, after Ed Ruscha (from Pictures of Cars), 2008. Live now in Poly Auction x Artnet Joint Online Auction. Est. HKD 250,000–390,000.

On July 20, Poly Auctions Hong Kong launched its inaugural online auction in partnership with Artnet Auctions. The sale, live on Poly’s platform through July 25, offers a premium selection of more than 30 artworks in various categories, sourced by Artnet’s specialist team. 

This strategic partnership will allow Artnet Auctions to link consignors to a wider Asian collecting base while granting Poly access to a broad selection of blue-chip artworks from the Western canon. “The best way to connect our clients with Asia is through partnership,” said Artnet’s Vice President of Auctions, Colleen Cash. “Through this collaboration, Poly is able to expand their access to a pipeline of artworks, and we are able to offer our clients better reach in of the most critical parts of the global art market.”

How does a collaboration of this scale come to be, across time zones, language barriers, and a global pandemic? To find out, we spoke to the three women behind it: Cash, Poly Auction’s Director Lili Tang, and Jingyi Zhu, who oversees special projects and strategic partnerships at Artnet.

George Condo, Weather Vane (1985). Live now in Poly Auction x Artnet Joint Online Auction. Est. HKD 280,000–390,000.

How did Poly Auction and Artnet become connected? How did this partnership with Artnet come to be? 

Jingyi Zhu: When I joined Artnet in 2016, I noticed that we had a great inventory of fairly-priced artworks by artists with an established market, and there could be an opportunity for us to introduce our services to the Chinese market, but at the time, we saw two major issues: language barriers and payment methods. 

Last year in Beijing, I had the opportunity to meet with Poly Auction. I learned about their online platform, which is easy to use and has a constant flow of auctions. I had the idea to use their platform to bring consignments from Artnet to China, thereby introducing our brand and expertise to a market to which we previously had limited access.

Colleen Cash: I went to Shanghai in November 2019 with some Artnet colleagues, including Jingyi, to meet with clients and attend the season’s art fairs, and I was astounded by the level of interest and passion about the art market in both mainland China and in Asia at large. During the pandemic, global travel ceased, as did our ability to have boots on the ground in China. But one key strategic focus that did not change was our desire for global expansion, on behalf of our consignors and our buyers. 

Lili Tang: In Chinese we have a saying: “Persons of noble character support each other.” In a multicultural, globalized time, China needs the world and the world needs China. I feel that word of wisdom is our foundation of working with Artnet Auctions.

What excites you most about this partnership between Poly and Artnet? 

CC: We were delighted to find a shared vision with Poly, and through this mutual perspective and aligned business goals, we were able to foster an incredibly high level of trust across phone calls and time zones. The synergy between and amongst us was just so clear. Artnet has long been a context provider, and many U.S. and even Europe-based clients have lacked the operational context to be able to transact in Asia. Through this inaugural sale, we are providing that context and ability to buyers in Asia, and likewise to consignors in the United States and Europe. We are expanding the market’s possibilities and creating a series of potential connections that otherwise would not be possible.

JZ: It’s exciting for us to finally bring our amazing consignments to Chinese collectors on such a convenient platform. This whole partnership was executed over the course of nine months, and it happened solely online. This is an example of how, since the pandemic, different teams can work together through the internet. 

LT: Cultivating a marketplace on the internet is an inevitable development in our society in this day and age. In China we have already developed outstanding infrastructures to support an online platform, which has also benefited our auctions online at Poly. Especially with the pandemic, many auction houses have started to adapt and lead existing collectors, who used to be more accustomed to brick-and-mortar auctions, into the digital realm. This has put more attention on online auctions, and we thought it was the right moment to present some higher-value artworks online.

Marc Quinn, South China Sea Shore (2010). Live now in Poly Auction x Artnet Joint Online Auction. Est. HKD 650,000–950,000.

What was the largest challenge you faced, being based in three cities around the world, and working together via Zoom calls?

LT: A large project is composed of tiny, trivial tasks. In this collaboration, we have encountered many unexpected circumstances related to operations, accounting, cataloging, and more. When we first chatted about the possibility of working together, everything seemed to be smooth sailing. Yet once we started researching the practical aspects, the amount of work was greater than expected. We communicated virtually across three continents, and dealt with the policies and regulations in both countries. Everything was brand new and we were carving out a unique path together. 

CC: I’m in the United States, Jingyi is in Europe, and Lili is in mainland China, so that meant taking very late night or early morning calls to make progress in the partnership! Another interesting hurdle was the logistics on the presale side—translating cataloging and provenance and ensuring our operational ethos of ease and seamless transaction translated into this sale format. We landed on a totally novel and easily replicable system.

JZ: Beyond logistical challenges, it’s important to realize that Artnet and Poly have different company cultures and cultural backgrounds. It’s not just about translating between Chinese and English, but about translating the Artnet culture: how we work, what our intentions are. It was an opportunity for us both to be flexible, balancing the dynamics of both cultures and companies.

Cy Twombly, Still Life With Doorknob (1950–51). Live now in Poly Auction x Artnet Joint Online Auction. Est. HKD 1,200,000–1,400 000.

How does the Chinese art-buying audience differ from collectors in the U.S. or Europe?

LT: Young collectors are no longer paying attention to the Chinese market only. To be precise, they are more open-minded and are able to appreciate various forms of art practices. I believe they will change the ecosystem of the art industry profoundly as they mature. We will have more celebrity collectors in China, and more artworks will enter China from overseas. 

Can you tell me about your favorite work being offered in this sale?

JZ: My favorite piece in this sale has to be Cy Twombly’s Still Life With Doorknob. This work is absolutely unique. It is a rare, early work by the artist, created when he was still learning and absorbing a lot from his teachers, including Robert Motherwell. He was traveling, he was in love, so this is an important piece that represents his turning point as an artist. 

CC: I want to call out Vik Muniz’s 20th Century Fox, after Ed Ruscha (from Pictures of Cars). What I love about this work is that it speaks to both  Americana and the golden age of Hollywood, but it also speaks to a global culture as well. Art, culture, and entertainment are great uniters. They transcend language barriers and operational barriers. This is an image we can all relate to.

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