Francis Belin on Christie’s Unprecedented Collaboration With China Guardian

2020 has been a turbulent year to the world. It is also a year of changes to Christie’s.

As the COVID-19 pandemic brought global live auctions to a halt, Christie’s had to come up with new strategies to keep its business running. In its coming auction ONE, they are going to present the first-ever global art auction spanning four cities in one relay-style format. They continue to push the boundary and shock the art world by partnering up with another leading auction house China Guardian in Shanghai.

We invited Francis Belin, President of Christie's Asia, to talk about these challenges and changes.

Francis Belin, President of Christie's Asia

Tell us more about Christie’s collaboration with China Guardian in Shanghai. How will it be carried out?

We will share the same venue (Christie’s Shanghai Art Space) with a wide range of events like previews, lectures, dinners being held together. Our specialists will talk in terms of curating collections. But sales will be held individually. Buyers participating in Christie’s sale will receive a Christie’s paddle through our team. We will not share seller information with each other. Collectors will join our biddings or China Guardian’s biddings separately likely they usually do. In other words, it’s more like an opportunity for both auction houses to synergize on events, art and engage each other’s clients without sharing confidential information.


Why did Christie’s choose to collaborate with one of its main competitors?

We have never seen a collaboration between auction houses on this large scale. We are very excited about it, including our respective CEOs, who had been in contact on related matters. You asked why do we collaborate. But we wondered, is there any reason why we never collaborated? Actually, there isn’t.

As you know we are more divided than ever in our world right now. There are lots of things going on between the US and China or competitions in geopolitics. We just want to do the contrary and find ways for collaboration. Meanwhile, there is a fundamental shift in the way we are likely to do business in the future. It has been very divided. But does it have to be in that way?

The official design photo for Christie’s and China Guardian’s collaboration with Christie’s Shanghai Art Space as the backdrop.

Christie’s Shanghai Art Space

Christie’s holds its Shanghai autumn sales every year with a focus on contemporary art

The Chinese government has posed a set of restrictions and regulations on foreign auction houses doing business in China. For example, they can’t auction Chinese works of art from 1949 or before. Does this collaboration help Christie’s in addressing these problems? Do you have any plans to expand the scale and categories of your business in mainland China?

You are right to say that we have limitations on what we can or cannot sell in Shanghai. Nevertheless, we recorded our best sale ever. We broke records for Western artists. Within the range that we can sell, we have achieved stunning results. The aggregate sell-through rate in our Shanghai sale last year is 96%. We broke records for Western artists, and we have pulled off results that even our colleagues in New York are surprised to have.

We are very committed to China and our operation in Shanghai. We are happy with the results we have achieved so far. We wish we could sell pre-1949 materials. We think we can do more. China Guardian may or may not sell pre-1949 materials. My guess is that they probably would. But we didn’t partner simply because we can’t sell this and they can sell that.


Are there any bigger plans or long-term partnerships discussed between the two auction houses?

Who knows? We might find more collaborate opportunities in Shanghai in the future. In fact, this partnership is so new for everyone too. I think it opens up a whole range of opportunities.

Zao Wou-Ki’s 21.10.63 is a leading lot of Christie’s ONE, its first global 20th-century art auction spanning four cities

Hong Kong is the only salesroom that gets the privilege to hold the major ‘evening sale'

Christie’s announced earlier its first global 20th-century art auction spanning four cities in one relay-style format on 10 July. The multi-part, live sale ONE will take place in real-time across time zones, moving consecutively through the art world’s major hubs: Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York.

How did the Hong Kong office manage to get such a privilege under your leadership?

It’s time for Asia to lead again. That’s one of the most important growth markets in the world. Not only did we manage to start, but we also managed to move the whole evening sale block along with our sales. It was a global discussion after looking into different options. There is a very strong commitment from the firm to support the development of Asia. We are very excited. It’s the first time we have a truly global evening sale.

I think the art industry is very object focused, which sometimes prevents us to think about the way we work, the way we serve clients around the globe. The COVID-19 is giving the opportunity to many industries, including the art industry, to rethink the way we work.

Here at Christie’s, we used to have clear divisions in different ways. And now, with this crisis, we want to break it. We used to have live streams, online sales, private sales. Sometimes we think this is going to be sold in private sales while that is for online sale. Or this artwork should be sold in Hong Kong while that should be in New York.

What we have observed is that we had a live sale in Paris yesterday and most of the bids were actually posted online. You could see people bidding from Bangladesh, Sweden, the US, and we never had a sale like that before. We get clients around the world to be excited about Zao Wou-Ki being sold in Hong Kong. As well as Asian clients excited about Picasso being sold 2 hours later in New York. The division that we used to have is being challenged.

It’s the same case for our collaboration with China Guardian. We used to divide among ourselves, ‘Oh this is Christie’s. This is China Guardian.' But the COVID-19 created opportunities for us to rethink the way we worked.

Francis Belin standing next to Zao Wou-Ki’s 18.11.66, one of the highlights from Christie’s Hong Kong spring sales

12.11 Carats Fancy Intense Blue/IF Diamond Ring, one of the highlights from Christie’s Hong Kong spring sales

A gilt-bronze figure of seated Maitreya, Yongle Period, Ming Dynasty, one of the highlights from Christie’s Hong Kong spring sales

Coronavirus pandemic has brought a lot of uncertainty to the auction industry. What are the difficulties that Christie’s face regarding the upcoming Hong Kong July auction? What are you going to do about it?

I think they are more like constraints in operating our normal model. We cannot travel and clients cannot travel. It’s more complicated to move objects around. We have objects on view downstairs (Christie’s gallery space in Hong Kong) and clients cannot see them with the same experience that they usually have. We had to operate with reduced staff at some points. These are the complications to our usual ways of operating. And I guess that’s your next question: What are we going to do about it?

I think it’s a good time for everything to be reinvented. It’s time for redefining the standard of the art market and how we transact. We will always have collectors who want to collect, as well as collectors who want to sell. The question is how do we, as the largest auction house globally, continue to serve our clients on both sides?

With this unfortunate period for the past few months, it’s a boost to all our digital capabilities we have developed in the past. We have the most advanced capabilities on WeChat for our Chinese clients. When you look at biddings at our online auctions, our aggregate value is higher than everybody else’s in the industry.

This period of time has also pushed us to look at what we have and make the best out of it. We discovered that certain steps in bidding online are not as easy as we thought it would be for people in China. It pushes us to innovate, in terms of formats, tools, platforms we can use to facilitate the transaction.

Christie’s held live steam on WeChat showing Hong Kong spring sales preview

Christie’s has doubled down its development of online sales

Some examples of our innovations include the live streaming we had this morning. It’s not the first time that we do live streaming but we used to do it for selected objects or a small section of our sale. It’s our first large scale live streaming with at least 10,000 views.

We have new tools that go beyond catalogues. We used to have the paper catalogues and people are increasingly bored with them. Earlier this year, before all these happened, we decided to cut the number of our printed catalogue by half. But we also see more digital tools that can be used to present objects to clients, such as viewing rooms and 360° etc.

Christie’s has doubled its online sales globally in the first five months of the year. We have seen satisfactory results like the highest ever sale for jewellery and a strong sell-through rate for watches.

This season, Christie’s Hong Kong spring auction will be held in Alexander House, which is much smaller than your usual space in HKCEC. Any concerns on not having sufficient space to serve the large crowd?

We had our slot in May, but we were not able to move in HKCEC as we hoped. We have to postpone our sale until July but there is no space available at HKCEC. We think it was an interesting opportunity to present things differently. We have a beautiful gallery here, fully set up for auctions. We took some space in the Pedder building which is probably known for modern & contemporary art. We took some space in Jardine House for Chinese works of art and Chinese painting.

At this stage, I don’t think people will travel that much, whether we are in HKCEC or not. I don't think the traffic will be much different if we had the place in HKCEC. We are confident with our setting here and objects we have for sale.