Christie’s China President Jinqing Caroline Cai on the Country’s Maturing Market

Jinqing Caroline Cai discusses the Chinese art market in the wake of Christie's first sale in mainland China.

Jinqing Caroline Cai, President of Christie’s China. (© Christie’s Images Limited)

In the fall of 2013, Christie’s held its first-ever auction in mainland China in Beijing. Artnet’s Jessica Zhang recently visited the auction house’s office there and spoke to Jinqing Caroline Cai, president of Christie’s China.

Jessica Zhang: The first auction at Christie’s China was held on September 26. What was the size and scope of this sale?

Jinqing Caroline Cai: The entire global team at Christie’s was ecstatic about our first sale in mainland China. On September 26 we held an evening sale, showcasing 42 pieces in multiple categories, including Asian contemporary art, Impressionist paintings, modern art, American contemporary and post-war art, jewelry, watches, and fine wine.

JZ: What was the focus of the sale?

JCC: We wanted to present a diverse, first-hand “Christie’s experience.”Apart from the evening sale, we also held a series of art and cultural activities during our three-day auction preview, starting September 24. We also held multiple exhibitions to bring our diverse collection and services to Shanghai, including exciting works by Pablo Picasso and an extensive jewelry collection. During the auction, we launched two online sales: Hong Kong Only Jewels and Andy Warhol @Christie’s: China Online Only. We also held an art symposium, which was an excellent platform that gathered together a number of art professionals. Additionally, Christie’s launched three educational talks during which art lovers not only looked at beautiful pieces, but also acquired useful knowledge that enhanced their recognition of art categories and art appreciation. The educational talks focused on the artworks showcased at our exhibitions, including pieces by Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder.

JZ: At the beginning of last year, Christie’s announced a partnership with the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) to launch a one year-educational program called Global Art Market: Collecting and Investment. What can you tell us about this program?

JCC: We have a fixed, one-year program, exclusively designed according to the special interests of our business partners and their members; it’s about art collection and investment.

JZ: According to a Christie’s report released in June, sales of Asian artwork increased 28 percent, and Asian clients increased 15 percent. However, the overall sales volume in China decreased by 14 percent, as shown in artnet data, with China taking up a large portion of the market share in Asia. At the same time, Sotheby’s also predicted that the Asian art market was still slowly recovering. How would you describe the trend?

JCC: We believe that Chinese art collectors and the Chinese art market will continue to grow. From a macro perspective, China’s economic power is strengthening every year, as is China’s wealthy class. In terms of government policy, we also see increasing support from current leaders in the Chinese government. For example, during 2011 and 2012, more than 300 museums were built in China. In addition, the increased cultural exchange—whether by bringing international art collections to China or vice versa—has been very well-received. Christie’s is taking a leadership role in guiding the market. Both old and new customers were more than happy to get involved once we consigned excellent works, built a good service platform, created a trusted brand, and adhered to professional ethics and integrity.

JZ: The auction market is still fairly new in China. A significant percentage of buyers tend to purchase works as investments, instead of out of a love of art, which causes occasional market fluctuations. How do you perceive the maturity, sustainability, and future development potential of the Chinese art market?

JCC: This is a new market. As was the case in the early stages of the European and American art markets, emerging markets tend to generate more opportunities and greater art appreciation. I think many opportunities exist here, and people are very enthusiastic. Of course, we have prepared for doing long-term business here, so we are not looking for short-term commercial returns. In China, Christie’s hopes to raise more awareness about the value of art, bring transparency to the market, and creating an honest and open atmosphere. Through our training, education, and interaction with the market, we hope to foster an environment in which every member of the art market can grow together. This is our most important goal.

JZ: What is the biggest challenge you have encountered while conducting business in China?

JCC: We have always had a soft spot for the Chinese art market. We have the utmost respect for Chinese art, and we are very excited about growing the auction business in China. This also means more opportunities to communicate with the emerging market, and to showcase a global art experience, which needs multicultural and multi-industry talents. In terms of our team, we recruit and train the best art professionals, and we openly communicate with artists and collectors of various tastes and backgrounds. We hope to create a platform that’s open, inclusive, and features high-quality artworks.

JZ: What is the strategic goal for Christie’s China? What’s the difference in your strategic positioning in comparison with Western markets?

JCCOur ultimate, long-term goal is just like that of London, New York, and Paris, which is to provide customers with a universal Christie’s experience, and to showcase our art and other collecting categories. The Chinese art market has great potential because it is still a new, emerging market, but also because it has a lot of potential to grow. The development and proliferation of online auctions, online information, and a mobile network has created more challenges for us. It took 200 years for Christie’s London, and more than 20 years for Christie’s New York to become what you see today. However, with the Chinese art market, we have needed to deliver within an even shorter period of time, and to bring our best practices to the Chinese art market.

JZ: What art categories will Christie’s China feature in its upcoming auctions, and how will this impact your business?

JCC: Christie’s will not only offer excellent works by Chinese artists who are influential and highly recognized, but we will also present works by artists who are active throughout Asia. In addition, the Western contemporary and post-war sector has witnessed fast growth, and we see high potential in this sector in China as well. We have always promoted an “East meets West” theme that focuses on how Chinese artists are integrated into the global art field. Artists such as Chu Teh-Chun and ZaoWou-Ki, among many others, have created an artistic language that is Chinese, but also universal. Conversely, some Western artists also draw inspiration from China, and we will connect Chinese collectors and art lovers with this kind of work.

JZ: In terms of Christie’s business in Asia, what is the relationship between Christie’s Shanghai and Christie’s Hong Kong?

JCC: From my experience, Christie’s is a globally integrated organization that has reached the highest degree of globalization. Our organization is set up in a way that supports our business features. Each and every specialist team at Christie’s is, in fact, a global team. For example, a ceramics specialist working at Christie’s Beijing is constantly communicating with our global ceramics specialists. The advice provided to our customers doesn’t represent just one opinion, but has the full support and knowledge of Christie’s global specialist team. In addition, within the past three years of rapid development in the global art market, we have also mobilized internal resources, and expanded our online business and private sales business.

JZ: In general, when an artwork enters into the secondary market, its value is relatively high. In addition, people are accustomed to viewing the works in person before the auction. Christie’s is a renowned brick-and-mortar auction house; how do you evaluate Chinese collectors’ acceptance of online auctions? From your perspective, what are the strengths and weakness of online auctions, and what are the main differences between the client groups for your online and offline business?

JCC: Just like any type of e-commerce, our online auction business has a few special advantages. However, the key is to understand the special interests and needs of our customers. We have designed categories specifically for our online customers, such as red wine, watches, and photography. These offerings are more easily appraised and authenticated, and make it easy for buyers to make purchase decisions based on online information only. Of course, our highest price points from online sales go to oil paintings, such as a post-war American painting purchased for nearly US$9 million. As the level of information has increased for online transactions, we have started cultivating online customers and expanding our offerings. Online auctions are an important channel to attract new clients. At the same time, our live auctions best represent the brand’s traditional experience and rich history.

JZ: How do you coordinate the timing for online and offline auctions?

JCC: There is definitely a difference in rhythm between the two. Live auctions go through the process of real-time bidding and price determination on the spot, whereas online auctions have more flexibility. But these two formats can co-exist. In terms of our strategy, we are also looking to develop multiple channels in a flexible manner.

JZ: The Chinese auction market has developed at an amazing speed over the past few years. Christie’s choice to enter the market as a wholly owned, foreign auction house will alter the current market. In comparison to Sotheby’s Beijing and local auction houses such as China Guardian and Poly International Auction, what is the most important competitive advantage of Christie’s?

JCC: First of all, we all jointly developed this market, a market that allows us to grow together. We are still in the early development stages of the Chinese art market, and we all have a responsibility to ensure the healthy development of this new market. Therefore, communication with other auction houses is very important, because it allows us to cultivate a sustainable environment. If we talk about the unique characteristics and strengths of Christie’s, our 247-year history is significant because it has allowed us to accumulate a lot of experience and depth. Another unique characteristic is innovation. For example, we founded the Asian contemporary sector and promoted it in the Asian market. Based on what we see today, our achievements reaffirm our insightful vision. In addition, we also place great value on building a fair system with the principals of honesty and integrity, which is a part of our culture. We provide transparent, fair, and professional services. In addition, we have a team of specialists who spend years on in-depth research in their particular fields, maintain professional standards, and continuously support and encourage each other.

JZ: What attracted you to the field of art auctions?

JCC: It’s a rare chance, and a very creative yet challenging opportunity for me to work at a world-renowned brand, and to be in charge of the expanding new market at the same time. Also, what most attracted me to this job was the ability to bring innovation to the development of the company, as well as the industry.

JZ: Do you collect art? What kind of artists are you drawn to?

JCCI wouldn’t call it collecting, but I am very interested in multiple art categories, ranging from contemporary oil paintings and sculptures to antiques. Working in an artistic environment like the one at Christie’s, I am fortunate to be able to have first-hand experience with many masterpieces. I am mostly interested in artists with a global vision who can draw new inspiration from culture.

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