Next month, Christie's will host its first auction in mainland China. It is the first foreign auction house to be allowed to operate independently in China, whose art market value is believed by some to now rival that of the United States.
Although Christie's has long had a presence in Hong Kong, it was previously only allowed to operate in mainland China through a trademark licensing agreement with China's Forever International Auction Company.
Now, with its newly independent status, Christie's is likely to send ripples in the Chinese market as it brings its huge wealth of experience and expertise, not to mention the Christie's juggernaut brand that most non-Chinese art buyers recognise more instantly than that of China's two biggest auctions houses, Beijing Poly and China Guardian.
Indeed, in a market reportedly rife with issues of non-payment, bribery and fake goods, Christie's guarantee of authenticity might give it a leg up over its competitors. While the licence which Christie's received on March 28 does not permit the company to trade in ''cultural relics'', it will still be able to sell everything from contemporary art to fine wine to watches and jewellery.
BT spoke to Jonathan Stone, chairman and international head of Asian Art of Christie's, when he was in town recently.
Q: How did Christie's manage to get the licence to operate in the Chinese art market which has been said to be fairly insular?
Mr Stone: For the last couple of years, we've worked closely with the Shanghai authorities which has been very welcoming toward us. People are generally pleased with it because it signals the opening of China and the internationalisation of the Chinese art market.
Q: There's been a lot of talk that the contemporary Chinese art market is weakening. Do you agree?
Mr Stone: I'm optimistic about the contemporary art market in China. I think there is a perception that it's gotten weaker partly because it grew so phenomenally fast for about five years from 2003/4 onwards. That kind of growth would never have been sustainable. What's happening now is a consolidation of the market . . . it's not growing so precipitously as it has been before, but I still think there is a lot of interest and potential in contemporary art.