Auction houses in China: Christie’s v the people’s army

IN 1779 the estate of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, sold an art collection to Catherine the Great. The private sale, which included pieces by Rubens and Rembrandt, was brokered by James Christie, a pioneering auctioneer. Though she placed most of these in St Petersburg’s Hermitage museum, the Russian empress traded a few items with the Qianlong emperor for some Chinese masterpieces.Despite this precedent, China has resisted globalising its art market. It has long forbidden foreign auction houses from operating independently on the mainland. The grip eased a bit this week, as Christie’s held its first sale in China. The auction, which offered a motley assortment of Chinese and Western fine art and collectibles, was a small one—but it marked an important step in China’s ongoing integration into the global scene. Sotheby’s, a rival Western auction house which has formed a joint venture with a state-owned Chinese firm, is planning an auction in Beijing in December.The attraction is clear. China’s art market is the largest in the world in value terms after America’s, though it has had its wobbles. From 2007 to 2011 it seemed to be the world’s…

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