chinese antique jade potIn little more than a decade, Chinese Antiques auction houses have come from nowhere to rank among the biggest in the world.

Chinese Antiques auctioneers Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which together dominate the sale of fine art, jewellery and antiques across the globe, both have a history that stretches back to the 18th Century.

But in little more than a decade Chinese Antique auctioneer rivals have emerged in China that present a major challenge to their long-standing duopoly and demonstrate how the art world is being transformed by the tastes of China’s newly affluent antiques collectors.

According to French auction body Conseil des Ventes, half of the world’s top 20, and five of the top 10 houses are now Chinese.

Six years ago, Beijing Poly, China’s biggest auction house and now the world’s third largest, did not exist. China Guardian, the world’s fourth largest, has only been operating since 1993.

Chinese works—particularly those that might have an Imperial pedigree—are selling for up to 10 times what they did five or six years ago. Bypassed, if not exactly ignored in the past by collectors, the finest Chinese furniture has surpassed the top European and American pieces in value. In a cultural phenomenon with fascinating economic and sociological underpinnings, the mainland’s nouveau riche are paying emperor’s ransoms to reclaim their country’s treasures. Their knowledge of antiques may be shallow, but their pockets are incredibly deep.

Last year, despite the global recession, the London salesrooms of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams set house records as dealers and mainland collectors pushed up prices. In New York, Christie’s robust September sale of Chinese ceramics and artwork took in roughly $38 million. The highlight was a rare blue and white Ming-style moonflask that dated from the mid-to-late-17th century and bore a Qianlong seal mark. The moonflask fetched $2.65 million, nearly quintupling its estimate.

Chinese Antiques boom

The market for Chinese antiques has boomed in the past five years as China’s millionaires and billionaires rediscover the heritage of their homeland.

The competition is fierce, tenacious, and heated, with bidders vying for everything from porcelain bottle vases to elephant-ivory fruit baskets, from amber pendants to carved hornbill heads, from bronze Buddhas to zitan floor screens. It’s a small miracle that many of these objects survived the mindless destruction of the Boxer Rebellion, the second Sino-Japanese War, and the Red Guard.

Many are prepared to pay as much for a Chinese antique painting as for a Picasso or a Warhol, who, according to research firm Artprice, were ousted in 2011 from their position as the top-selling artists at auction by two Chinese painters little heard of in the West – Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi.

song jade carving dog

While Christie’s and Sotheby’s make substantial sales of Chinese antiques and artefacts in Hong Kong, Chinese auction houses have captured the lion’s share of this new stream of business.

China Guardian took $606m (£386m; 450m euros) at its autumn auctions in Beijing in November, more than the $412m Sotheby’s took at its Hong Kong auctions in October. Christie’s took $367m at its November Hong Kong auctions.

Beijing Poly’s parent company, part of a sprawling conglomerate said to have links to China’s military, is also rumoured to be preparing for a stockmarket flotation.

If successful, it would make it the world’s second-largest publicly traded art industry company after Sotheby’s.

Top auction houses by 2010 sales

Christie’s 3.4bn euros (UK)
Sotheby’s 3.3bn euros (US)
Beijing Poly 1.1bn euros (China)
China Guardian 846m euros (China)
Heritage Auction Galleries 518m euros (US)
Bonhams 422m euros (UK)

Source: Conseil des Ventes

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