China’s Largest Auction House Coming West



China Guardian Auctions, one of China’s oldest and largest art and antiquities auction houses, is headed to the West. The company recently announced the opening of an office in New York City and the construction of one in London, and establishment of a liaison in Vancouver. China Guardian currently has three branches in mainland China and offices in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Additionally, China Guardian is making pointed outreach efforts in major U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. Outreach includes setting up cultural exchanges to China and facilitating education about and support of Chinese art. The auction house was a sponsor of the recent “Shanghai” exhibition at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, for instance. China Guardian is also establishing relationships with collectors of Chinese art, museums and dealers with the interest of acquiring inventory to sell back in China, Chinese art typically fetches the highest prices. The company currently has no intention of establishing auction houses outside of China.

China Guardian was established in 1993 and conducted its first auction, which brought in $2 million, the following year. The company has steadily grown since then and now offers the widest variety of inventory of any of China’s art auction houses (according to China Guardian representatives, there are roughly 10 larger auction houses in China and an estimated 3,000 total art auction companies). The company’s offerings include contemporary painting, traditional style ink painting and calligraphy, antiquities, coins, rare books, furniture, jade, stamps, jewelry and sculpture; the traditional Chinese-style ink paintings and calligraphy constitute over 50 percent of total sales.

Last year, China Guardian’s total sales came to an impressive $1.2 billion. By comparison, Christie’s worldwide art sales in 2010 totaled $5.5 billion, which was the 245-year-old company’s highest annual sales total. Sotheby’s brought in $4.8 billion—for this 267-year-old auction house, the second-highest annual sales total, after 2007. Christie’s 2010 Hong Kong sales totaled $721.9 million and Sotheby’s, $685.1. (The Sotheby’s 2011 Hong Kong totals, after the recent fall auction, total just under US$1 billion in auction sales.) China Guardian representatives estimate that total sales of all art in China is around the $7 billion mark.

Sales at this year’s China Guardian spring auction topped out at $649 million, which included several world-record-breaking sales in various Chinese art categories: Mountain, Earth and Wind by Chen Yifei (category: Chinese oil painting) sold for $12.4 million; a Yuan Dynasty handwritten copy of Policies of the Eastern and Western Han Dynasties in Twelve Volumes (category: Chinese ancient books) sold for $7.3 million; Mirror, Blossom, Water and Moon-Bronze Mirror with Auspicious Beasts and Inscriptions (category: bronze mirror) sold for $1.4 million; and The Towering Pine and Cypress Painting with Four-Character-Line Couplet in Seal Script by Qi Baishi (category: modern and contemporary Chinese painting) sold for $66.6 million. This latter work is the third highest sale ever for a Chinese piece of art, and it fetched more than any object at major auction house spring sales worldwide: the top seller at Sotheby’s this spring was a painting by Picasso for $21.3 million, and there was a tie for the top position at Christie’s—a Monet and a Vlaminck each sold for $22.5 million.

China Guardian’s Director and Vice President, Kou Qin, noted in a recent conversation with A.i.A. that another of the company’s interests in expanding westward is to learn from the larger Western auction houses and the Western art market. Kou also expressed the auction house’s interest in ultimately expanding its offerings, and bringing Western art to China.