Christie’s and China: An Artful Diplomacy
Published: November 19, 2010
SHANGHAI — Two months ago, during Asian Art Week, Christie’s auction house invited hundreds of wealthy collectors, scholars and art patrons to its New York headquarters in Rockefeller Center for what it described as a special exhibition and symposium about the rise of Chinese contemporary art.
But the 29 works in the show were not produced by the politically focused Chinese artists who had helped Christie’s earn millions of dollars at auction over the past five years. Instead, the group — mostly realist painters whose work had been ignored by collectors and curators outside the country — was selected by a Chinese government-appointed panel. And none of the pieces were being sold at auction.
The show, “Trans-Realism,” is part of an unusual partnership between Christie’s and an affiliate of China’s Ministry of Culture. The collaboration is striking because it began just over a year after the Chinese government denounced Christie’s for trying to sell two Qing dynasty bronzes that Beijing insisted were looted from the country 150 years ago.
Christie’s executives later apologized for the sale and said they were eager to take a new approach to working with Beijing.
“We want to improve our relations with China, with the Chinese people and government, and Chinese museums and artists,” said Andrew Foster, an international managing director at Christie’s, which is based in London.
As part of the partnership, Christie’s is considering financing a series of exhibitions with Chinese institutions like the Ministry of Culture’s Center of International Cultural Exchange; the recent Asian Art Week show would be just the first. For that show, Christie’s paid to transport the art, publish the exhibition catalog and even paid travel expenses for staff of the culture ministry’s subsidiary.
In an e-mail, a spokesman for Christie’s said he couldn’t cite a similar effort by the auction house, though it does work regularly with quasi-governmental organizations to promote art. He also declined to say how much Christie’s is spending on the planned shows. The agreement has already drawn sharp criticism from some art experts, who say Christie’s decision to promote artists the Chinese government selects alters the role of the auction house and could undermine its credibility with collectors.
They also worry that Christie’s has bowed under pressure from a government that often tries to silence critics and artists it dislikes. Beijing, for instance, strongly protested the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, even summoning the Norwegian ambassador to make its point. (The Peace Prize is administered there.)
And it has repeatedly taken action against Ai Wei Wei, one of the most prominent Chinese artists internationally, for what he says are his political statements against the government. Most recently Mr. Ai has said he was told to shutter his newly built Shanghai art studio and was not allowed to leave his home until after a party planned for the studio’s demolition was over.
Organizing the exhibitions “is clearly a political move,” said Joan Lebold Cohen, a New York art collector and an expert on Chinese contemporary art. “This is to get back in the government’s favor.”
But other experts say Christie’s is following virtually every other global corporation in trying to expand in China by cozying up with Beijing, which wields tremendous power over how businesses operate here.
The partnership comes at a time when Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the world’s two biggest auction houses, are moving aggressively to gain entry to China’s booming auction market, which has grown to about $3.2 billion in 2009 from about $1.1 billion in 2004, according to Artron, a Beijing-based group.
Up to now, Beijing has restricted Western businesses from holding auctions inside mainland China, though they can hold auctions in Hong Kong. That has allowed Chinese auction houses like Poly Auction and Guardian to flourish.
Christie’s Hong Kong auctions have been lucrative — taking in about $2.7 billion in auction sales and fees during the past six years. And the company inched into mainland China by signing a licensing agreement with the Chinese auction house Forever Auctions in 2005.
But Christie’s push into China was threatened in early 2009, when it proceeded with the Paris sale of two Chinese-made bronze animal heads that were part of Yves Saint Laurent’s huge art collection. The animal heads were believed to have been looted from China after British and French troops destroyed the imperial Summer Palace in 1860, during the Opium Wars.
To this day, China views the destruction of the site as a symbol of how Western powers encroached upon the country. So when Christie’s announced the sale, Beijing demanded that the two bronzes, which it called stolen, be returned to China. Christie’s said it recognized the sensitivity of the issue surrounding the bronzes, but it refused to exclude them from the auction.
A Chinese businessman eventually bid $40 million for the two pieces. But he later refused to pay and then acknowledged that he had intentionally sabotaged the auction. (The items were eventually returned to the heirs of Mr. Saint Laurent.)
Immediately after the auction, China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage released an angry statement saying “Christie’s obstinately went ahead with the auction, going against the spirit of international conventions and common international understanding that cultural relics should be returned to their country of origin.”
The message was clear: the government could consider locking Christie’s auction house out of the China market.
That statement alarmed executives at Christie’s, according to people involved with the show at Christie’s and with the Chinese government. They said they were not authorized by their employers to speak on the record. And so this year Christie’s sought to repair relations with Beijing by offering the partnership with the Ministry of Culture’s Center of International Cultural Exchange, an arm that deals primarily with international exhibitions.
Tang Jing, a deputy manager of information at the center, said Christie’s offered to finance and provide space for an exhibition of Chinese contemporary art, and it brought on two prominent government curators: Fan Dian, director of the National Art Museum of China, and Pan Qing, a curator at the National Museum of China.
Christie’s even agreed to allow the government curators to select artists that the government felt were “more representative.”
“Christie’s offered us an opportunity to ‘spend their money and do our favorite things,’ ” Ms. Tang said in an interview. “They said to us, ‘We just want to promote the mainstream art that Chinese favor.’ ”
The partnership was unusual because Christie’s does not generally work with governments to promote artists who are not well-established and because the exhibitions were not aimed at showing works that Christie’s would someday sell.
But museum experts said that despite the odd pairing, nothing was inherently wrong with the show.
“This would be unthinkable for a museum,” said Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society and Museum in New York. “But as a business, this is acceptable. Most people accept that Christie’s is first and foremost a business. And Christie’s is clearly trying to forge a relationship with the government.”
Ms. Pan, curator of the “Trans-Realism” show, said the government and Christie’s also had common objectives. Both were eager to broaden the public’s narrow understanding of Chinese contemporary art.
She said that in recent years, the sizzling hot auction market has been dominated by just a group of Chinese artists favoring political themes.
“We both wanted to promote Chinese art, and not just the artists who were popular in the market,” she said. “It’s not that we think those artists are not good. But we want to say, ‘There are other artists the West should recognize.’ ”
With realism in art as the focus, and with Christie’s advice, the curators selected 29 works by 17 Chinese artists, including Yang Feiyun, Yu Hong and Xin Dongwang, for an exhibition that opened simultaneously with Asian Art Week and the auction house’s fall preview of Asian art.
Christie’s and the government are considering another show, which may focus on ink painting and calligraphy.
As for the dispute over the bronze animal heads, Lu Jun, director of the Center of International Cultural Exchange, hinted that the government has not forgotten about it.
“They can’t steal from us and not give it back,” he said.
A few minutes later, he added, “I’d recommend they donate two or three things from their auction to make things better.”
But Mr. Lu also praised Christie’s for putting on what he called a memorable show.
“Now we’re building a better relationship from the bottom up,” he said, adding, “I want to send a message that the cooperation was successful.”
“And we didn’t spend any money. All our costs were covered by Christie’s.”