Christie's Asia Head Francois Curiel on the "Shifting Landscape" of the Market

Christie's Asia Head Francois Curiel on the "Shifting Landscape" of the Market
Francois Curiel in action.
(Courtesy Christie's Hong Kong)

SINGAPORE — François Curiel, the head of Christie’s in Asia, is hard at work preparing for the company’s fall auction in Hong Kong. ARTINFO caught up with him recently while he was in Singapore for the 10th anniversary dinner of the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, discussing the state of the market, the new categories he’s planning to introduce in Hong Kong, and the Singapore Freeport.

How is the auction market right now?


So far, we seem to be weathering the financial tempest pretty well. We just had a jewellery auction in New York estimated at $35-40 million selling for $50 million, with 85 percent of lots sold. A few weeks before on September 27th, we had the famous collector Hélène Rochas’s sale in Paris with a low estimate of €10 million, going for €16 million. So the moment when quality works of art become available, there are more buyers than sellers and the prices are extremely strong.

But volumes were down for the first half of the year?

Yes, at Christie’s in Asia, we were 25 percent down in the first six months, compared to 40 percent for the other auction houses in Asia. But volumes were up 15 percent in Europe and America.

So why the difference?

There were four reasons for this. First, collectors in Mainland China were less active than for the same period in 2011, which saw unprecedented growth. Furthermore, the economy slowed down in China and there were talks about a customs enquiry earlier in the year on importing art in China. Finally, we had less Chinese works of art for sale during that period compared with 2011, because sellers who were not pressured to sell preferred to hold on to their property, as they were not sure about ways to invest the cash.

Knowing what you have coming up in Hong Kong in November, how do you anticipate to finish the year?

The results of our auctions in September and early October this year in Europe and America were encouraging, so I am cautiously optimistic about the Autumn sales in Hong Kong. In 2011 in Asia, we sold $835 million, an incredible 126 percent more than in 2009. There was no way we could continue at this rhythm. We will probably finish the year at around $650 million, so 76 percent up from 2009.

How important are the Mainland Chinese collectors at your auctions now?

Last year in Hong Kong, 84 percent of the sales in value went to collectors of Greater China, i.e., Mainland, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Of our worldwide sales, that number is 16 percent, up from 12 percent a year before.

Are the Asian collectors buying new categories?

Not on a meaningful scale yet. We see many Asian collectors in our London, Paris and New York auctions, but they concentrate on Chinese ceramics and work of art, Asian contemporary and Southeast Asian art, Chinese paintings, jewellery, watches, and wine.

Are you still having problems with Chinese collectors bidding and not paying up?

Not since we introduced a deposit policy in May 2011 where new buyers have to pay up to 20 percent of desired bidding levels upon registration. This is only for new buyers or anyone who does not have a good credit history. It was not easy to introduce, but it immediately stopped the slow payment issue.  

How do you see the competition in Asia now shaping up?

The French Market Auction Authority (Conseil des Ventes) has recently published a surveyof the top 20 auction houses in the world in 2011. Interestingly enough, one sees that China is present 11 times in the top 20 and 6 times in the top 10. France, which has been in the auction business since 1556, is only present once at Number 19.  So competition in Asia is intense, and the landscape is constantly shifting.

Do you believe the auction figures that are coming out of China?

I look at them with a certain distance and it is difficult to gauge, but even if only half of them are true — and I am sure that the level is more — it is very, very impressive. The Chinese houses are extremely well organized and the administration of the auctions has nothing to envy of ours. It is fascinating to see how, in less than 10 years, these houses have made such an impact on the market, which traditionally was dominated by the Anglo-Saxons.

Does this give you food for thought?

I am most impressed by the amount of work and the level of business these houses have developed in a short period of time.  Competition is heating up, with Chinese houses, Guardian and Poly initiating sales in Hong Kong. This is good for Asia, and for the art market, as Hong Kong becomes increasingly important as an art hub of the region.

Are you planning to introduce new categories at auction in Hong Kong?

This year in November at the Convention Center, we shall have a non-selling exhibition of Chinese contemporary ink paintings. This will be followed next year by separate auctions for this category, which will have its own catalogue. This should increase the level of interest in the category – which traditionally has received less attention than Chinese contemporary oil painting – and also bring a new audience to Christie’s.

Anything else?

In November we are having a separate auction of traditional Chinese furniture, which until now was included in the Chinese works of art section. If this goes well, we will have regular biannual sales for this category. We are always thinking about other categories and are studying the possibility for introducing Asia photography, 20th-century decorative art, 1950s European furniture, and possibly also Impressionist and Modern paintings. This will depend on the number of Chinese collectors interested and active in these fields in London, New York and Paris.

How is your business in the Singapore Freeport going?

It is growing, perhaps not quite as quickly as we would like it to…. We decided to develop this facility in Singapore because we felt it would be a place where many Asian private collectors would keep their works of art. That was the original strategy. What happened instead is that it was filled quickly by European collectors who moved works from the Geneva Freeport.  These collectors are attracted to Singapore because of new stringent rules in Europe that require collectors to declare when bringing property from the Freeport back to their home countries.

Are you full at the Freeport now?