Auction house Phillips expects Chinese buyers to drive art sales as market proves resilient to Covid-19 pandemic

Emilee Geist

Phillips has joined hands with Poly Auction for the upcoming art sale in Hong Kong, in December. Photo: Handout Even as the coronavirus pandemic wrecks havoc on the global economy, a handful of businesses such as art auctioneers have proven resilient and even thrived, clocking record sales as they bolster […]



a group of people in a room: Phillips has joined hands with Poly Auction for the upcoming art sale in Hong Kong, in December. Photo: Handout


Phillips has joined hands with Poly Auction for the upcoming art sale in Hong Kong, in December. Photo: Handout

Even as the coronavirus pandemic wrecks havoc on the global economy, a handful of businesses such as art auctioneers have proven resilient and even thrived, clocking record sales as they bolster their limited physical auctions with a much larger online presence and strategic partnerships.

Against this backdrop, auction house Phillips and Poly Auction, a unit of Hong Kong-listed Poly Culture Group, will jointly conduct the upcoming fall auction, hoping to keep the momentum going, said Jonathan Crockett, chairman of Phillips Asia. The two auction houses are hammering out new ways to market art, both online and offline, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Crockett expects the 20th Century & Contemporary Art sale, featuring paintings, sculptures, and other works of art produced by both internationally recognised and emerging artists, to set another record for the company in Asia, following the record US$35 million that Phillips collected from the spring sale in July. Because of the pandemic, auction houses such as Phillips and Sotheby’s had to postpone their spring sales, usually held in April in Hong Kong, to July.

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The record was achieved despite 60 per cent fewer attendees compared to last November because of travel restrictions and social distancing measures imposed by the government.

Similarly for the upcoming fall auction in December, rooms packed with bidders that are a regular feature of art auctions in the city can be ruled out, as Phillips will have to abide by rules imposed by government on large gatherings to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The pandemic has largely been in control since the outbreak of the “third wave” in late July.

“So far for 2020 our Asian business has remained largely resilient to the global pandemic,” said Crockett, adding that Chinese buyers will continue to drive growth of their auction sales this year and next.

Global art sales plunge as social distancing, Covid-19 infection fears keep buyers away

They accounted for 65 per cent of the buyers in their July auction, while in 2019 buying activity from mainland China rose 77 per cent from a year ago, according to the company’s annual report. Beijing-based Poly Auction meanwhile had revenues of US$1.2 billion last year, according to its annual results.

The tie-up is mutually beneficial for both companies, said Crockett as it has helped Phillips to gain more exposure to mainland collectors, while Poly Auction has from Phillips’ global reach.

To prepare for the upcoming event, the two auction companies will ship art pieces to Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Taiwan for potential buyers to preview. While bidders may still be unable to cross the border to attend the auction physically, they can still participate through live online bidding.

“We have had to come up with a different format to respond to the needs of buyers (because of) the pandemic. As is always important with art, we continue to arrange travelling exhibitions to ensure clients can still stand in front of our sale offerings despite physical travel being restricted,” he said.

Poly Auction also operates in Hong Kong and Macau, with the unit in the gaming hub headed by Sabrina Ho, daughter of the late casino mogul Stanley Ho Hung-sun and his fourth wife Angela Leong On-kei.

Crockett said he and Ho have been working closely together. Ho, who is also the founder of Chiu Yeng Culture, a non-profit that promotes cultural and art in Macau, is helping with artworks for the upcoming Hong Kong event and finding potential buyers.

In 2019, Christie’s Hong Kong recorded the highest-selling lot of the year in China with the sale of Chinese artist Sanyu’s Five Nudes (circa 1950s). The painting fetched US$39.1 million in its November auction.

The city hosts several major art fairs such as Art Basel and auctions which often attract buyers from China, the world’s third largest art market with total sales in 2019 estimated at US$11.7 billion, according to the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report issued in May.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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