Christie's gets license to hold auctions in China

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 24: Christie's auction house prepares for next week's Old Masters auction on January 24, 2013 in New York City. The auction house previewed pieces from its upcoming Old Masters Week, to be held Jan. 26-31 in New York City, with the auction beginning January 29. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images) John Moore

HONG KONG Christie's said Tuesday it will be the first international auction house to operate without a local partner in mainland China, one of the world's biggest art markets.

The company said that it won a license to hold auctions in Shanghai beginning this fall.

Christie's and other auction houses have been reaping big profits from twice-yearly sales in Hong Kong, a former British colony that's now a special administrative region of China. Wealthy mainland Chinese collectors are a regular fixture at the sales and their purchases of art, jewelry, wine and other collectables have helped turn the city into one of the world's biggest auction centers.

But the foreign auction houses are eager to break into the mainland Chinese market so they can better target buyers.

CEO Steven Murphy said in a statement that the license means Christie's will be "able to directly conduct auctions in China under its own brand, and will offer collectors a more direct access to our global network and expertise,".

"Now Christie's will be able to engage with our clients in Shanghai in the same way that we have done over many years in London, Paris, New York and Hong Kong," he added.

Christie's announcement outdoes its rival Sotheby's, which last year set up a Chinese joint venture with local state-owned company Beijing GeHua Art Co.

Chinese auction houses have also stepped up the battle for the Asian art market by expanding out of the mainland. Beijing Poly International and China Guardian, the country's two biggest auction houses, held sales in Hong Kong for the first time last fall, going head-to-head with Christie's, Sotheby's and smaller houses from around the world.

China became the world's biggest art market in 2011 but slipped back behind the United States to second place last year with total sales of 10.6 billion euros ($13.8 billion) as the economy cooled, according to an annual report by The European Annual Fine Art Foundation.

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