Christie's Jonathan Stone Talks about the Asian Art Market

An interesting phenomenon has been observed in recent auctions: leading lots are highly sought after whereas low-price lots attract a different group of buyers, leaving those middle-price pieces in an awkward position of getting cold reception at auctions. 

We arrive on the 23rd floor of Alexandra House in Central to interview Jonathan Stone, Christie’s Chairman of Asian Art and Deputy Chairman for Asia. He has also noticed the above phenomenon, which he believes is a broad trend.

Q: Can you tell us about the latest trend in Asian art market?

J: The broad trend is that people looking for masterpieces, for exceptional works of art. The masterpiece is not refined only by its value, but also its historical and cultural significance. For classical art, it is important that the piece is in good condition and it has a good provenance; for contemporary art, it is about where has the artist been exhibited, like which museum, gallery or show that the artist had. 

Christie’s spring auction this year

Q: Do mainland buyers have a preference for classical Chinese art?

J: It has been interesting that the mainland buyers have expanded their collecting areas. Maybe starting with traditional Chinese paintings, which is an easy entry point as it is something they are growing up with, or maybe with great imperial ceramics. The Chinese collectors have expanded their interest into areas such as Chinese furniture, archaic jade, and lacquer. But this growing enthusiasm is always for great works of art. There’s less enthusiasm for the second great. 

J (continue): In the last few years, the Chinese enthusiasm for Western or international art has emerged and it has been quick. And I think people in China are quick learners that they grew to appreciate masterpieces. Again, it goes back to masterpieces. It is a worldwide phenomenon, not just Chinese collectors, but all great collectors are interested in great works of art.

Christie’s Hong Kong introduced “Post-War & Contemporary Art” for the first time in sprint auction this year

Q: What’s Christie’s strategy for the Chinese market?

J: Although we can’t sell works made before 1949 in China itself, we have gallery spaces in Beijing and Shanghai where we can exhibit great works of art and show them to our clients and friends. We also sent specialists from different departments to go to other cities in China to meet our clients and give them information about the art market. We ensure that the catalogues and our website are far more Chinese friendly than they used to be.

We also take this opportunity to ask Jonathan Stone about Christie’s closing its saleroom in South Kensington, London. 

Q: People were so shocked at Christie’s announcement of closing its South Kensington saleroom. What’s Christie’s plan for the future? 

J: First of all, there will be more sales for London King Street as some of the South Kensington sales will be migrated to King Street. And Christie’s will put more resources into online sale and I think it will bring more profit. For properties of lesser value, the online sale will take the place of South Kensington.

Q: After all, people can’t physically see the objects like they do in the saleroom. Do you think that is a restriction of online sale?

J: I hope that people can trust our specialists and what they say about the pieces. We also provide images and condition reports. Even in regular auctions, we already have a lot of buyers using online images to make decisions, without seeing the objects in person. 

Q: There is another big issue taking place in the United Kingdom – Brexit. How does it impact Christie’s business?

J: Over the years, there are different negative effects of Brexit, but the recent sale in London was actually very successful. In a longer term, I think we need to do a lot of work to understand whether there will be changes in the regulatory environment, but Christie’s is able to adapt to any changes. Besides, the art market is very global so it has different regulatory environments in London, Hong Kong, Paris or Shanghai. I don’t see Brexit has a huge effect on the art market.

As a leading auction house in the globe, Christie’s has been acted like a booster to the Asian art market. Its recent sales of Asian art stirred up the interest among collectors and made outstanding sale records. Of course, it thanks to the hard work of front-line staff like specialists and auctioneers at Christie’s. At the same time, the management staff also plays an important role. Jonathan Stone shares with us his job as Chairman of Asian Art at Christie’s.

Q: What do you do in Christie’s?

J: I have a kind of dual role - one is as the Chairman of Asian art globally to work with all specialists - also to work with regional management in Asia to ensure the sales are profitable. To ensure we have good relation with our clients, I need to be client-facing and to spend time with top clients, to understand what they want as well as to ensure Christie’s in Asia is performing to the best of our ability.

Q: What’s your most unforgettable consignment at Christie’s?

J: The greatest satisfaction was the sale of Min Fanglei, which is a Shang Dynasty archaic bronze that Christie’s had originally sold in 2001 in New York for a then-record price. Later (in 2014), we were really privileged to be able to work with the Hunan Provincial Museum to ensure that the Fanglei was donated to the museum so that the body and the lid could be reunited. That was hugely satisfying because it was about ensuring the great work of art was consigned, ended where it should be.

(Note: The lid of Min Fanglei has been kept in Hunan Provincial Museum and the body was auctioned in 2001. In 2014, the body of Min Fanglei was to be auctioned at Christie’s New York. Before the auction, a private deal was reached between Christie's and a group of mainland collectors, which ensured that the body of Min Fanglei would be donated to the museum.) 

Q: What about the Fujita Museum sale in New York this year?

J: The Fujita Sale was another great moment. It was a record sale for singular collection of Asian art and it was one of the top five of any singular collection sale that Christie’s has had. What’s so special about the sale is that the Fujita Museum has more designated national treasures than any other private museums in Japan. The museum was built in 1954. They wanted to recreate the museum and secure the financial future. It was a very good opportunity for Christie to provide the service to the museum.

Q: Was it difficult to get this consignment?

S: It was competitive. There are other auctions houses, the museum and their advisors needed to make it competitive. I understand it because they wanted to ensure that they had the best result and the best service, so they wanted to be working with the best people. It is deeply satisfying that they chose us because they felt Christie was the best company to work with, thanks to great colleagues that we have. The whole process took more than a year.

Fangzun, a bronze ritual wine vessel, was sold at the Fujita Sale and became the highest-paid archaic bronze in auction record

Throughout the interview, Jonathan is very gentleman and amiable. He gives us an impression of a highly cultured man. Maybe it has to do with his upbringing since he has always been passionate about music and history. By following his passion, he found the path for his ideal career.

Q: You pulled off a music show for the sale of instruments at Christie’s autumn 2015. How did you get such a brilliant idea?

J: One of my great passions in life has always been music. I came from a musical family – my father and grandmother are musicians and even my great-grand father was a musician – so I have a lot of music in my life and it is very important to me. One of my previous jobs at Christie’s was working as a specialist in the Musical Instrument department, which is something I have always wanted to do since I was a child.

Q: You returned to London and studied an MA in Art History. Why did you make such a decision?

J: I’ve always loved history - the study of culture, philosophy and the way people lived in the past. I studied history at Cambridge. And then there was an opportunity to work in Japan. It was far away from England and it was a whole new world. At the age of 21, I was really excited. Japan is so rich in its collections - like Asian, Japanese and Western art. There are many collections and exhibitions in Japan. I had the opportunity to spend time with artists. Then I realized that I wanted to change my career into art so I left my job and went back to London to study Art History.

Tokyo’s street view in the ‘80s

Q: How did Japanese art or Asian art influence you?

J: I think Asian art is like a prism that allows me to explore and look into other cultures and art. It helps me a lot at work as well as my self-cultivation.

Q: We heard that Christie’s is now discussing with local universities to launch a new degree programme. Can you tell us more about it?

J: It is now under discussion. We have long had more established courses in New York and London. We have some short courses in Hong Kong for some time and we are exploring more opportunities, looking for a more formal arrangement now. There are great enthusiasm and hunger for education in Asia. People appreciate learning opportunity so there is a huge demand for information and formal education. Hong Kong is a great hub for the whole region and people here work very hard. Hong Kong is also the Asian headquarter for Christie’s so it makes sense to do this in Hong Kong.

Christie’s offers formal curriculum in London and New York