Last week I made a ridiculously quick trip to China. Invited as a representative of the US luxury auction market by our live online auction platform provider, Invaluable.com, the trip represented a unique opportunity for our company to more deeply connect with the Chinese collecting and auction community. I will be blogging about the trip over a series of posts. Enjoy!
I think we began with an engaging and entertaining explanation of the challenging regulations and tax codes faced by French Auctioneers by President of the French Auctioneers Association, Jean-Pierre Osenot. Even Jean-Pierre had to admit to a pretty wonderful quality of life, as he shares the extensive vacation and holiday time granted to his employees by French legislation. From there, we explored the import taxes in each country, aided by the expert voice of Andrew Jackman, owner of Alban Shipping in the U.K. Since buyers generally pay their import tax outside of our transaction, I had not yet educated myself to the costs. Yikes! VAT is 17% in China, making the U.K.'s 5% tax seem paltry. Andrew is a bright guy and offered many suggestions to the group, but did lament the high cost of shipping in the U.S. While we all had to admit that a comparison of shipping rates between a country the size of Mississippi (the United Kingdom is roughly the same landmass as Mississippi or Louisiana) and all of the United States was a bit unfair, when you see the custom crates Andrew is building his clients, you cannot believe how low he sets his rates. Andrew and Epailive had recently engaged in an interesting project: Epailive organized a joint auction between several UK auction houses, held in Beijing. The goal of the auction was to expose Chinese buyers to Western antiques, art and taste, hopefully building interest, enthusiasm and prices. This was a topic continued on the next day, but I really enjoyed learning about this experiment by Epailive. Prior to the auction, Andrew's company shipped all of the merchandise to Epailive.com. Since it was imported prior to auction, the VAT was based on the estimated fair market value. When the auction was a gigantic success (some items selling for 10x's the estimate), the VAT savings were enormous. Brilliant.
For dinner, I sat next to the (new) CEO of Invaluable, Rob Weisberg and Catalog Specialist for Charlton Hall Galleries, Kinga Bender. Rob's flight had arrived late, and with traffic, he had to drive directly to the restaurant. Like many auctioneers, we have historically had a love/hate relationship with online auction providers, but the vast majority of Invaluable's team have been impressive professionals, and Rob was no exception. He is one busy guy, relating many travels to auction centers all over the world. It was especially interesting to hear about his time with Zipcar. Kinga and I focused our discussion on the sumptuous foods we shared family-style, although Kinga proved throughout the trip to be a much more adventurous diner than me.
A 13 hour flight, time change and roughly 23 hours without sleep left most of us begging for a pillow after dinner, so we headed back to the hotel. Per my usual bedtime routine, I popped open my iPad to catch up with my friends on Facebook and Twitter, only to be reminded of the strict censorship of those sites by the Chinese government. Although the trip was wonderful in many ways, this theme of censorship would recur consistently. Battling a bit of jetlag, I discovered 2048 - a ridiculous game apparently downloaded by one of my kids, but I was not long to sleep.
The next morning was an early start, and thankfully I had slept well. Together, the American group (Kinga, Rob and I, along with Ron Long, also of Charlton Hall and John Schofield of Eldred's) was greeted by our gracious and eager guide, Yibei (pronounced Ebay) who deftly navigated the streets of Beijing to the forum location. We were greeted in VIP fashion, with orchid corsages, prime seating and a VIP "chill" room. From a cultural perspective, it was interesting to note the acceptance of smoking indoors, the formal and fashionable clothing (one of my favorite aspects of Beijing) and the considerable effort to produce an impressive and exciting event. With over 50 members of the press, many Chinese government officials and representatives from the international art, antiques ad auction industry, the day kicked off with a series of mini-presentations and panel discussions on various topics (I was a panelist on the topic of factors in a successful online auction market). Every speaker was enthusiastic about the market and interested in opportunities for Integration and Innovation(the over-arching theme of the forum).
I listened with interest as impressive speakers:
- called on the Chinese government to reduce or waive the VAT tax on Chinese cultural artifacts;
- implored members of the trade to encourage and educate Chinese bidders about western art and antiques (making a compelling case for a healthy future collecting market in China, with concern for the post-Asian Art boom)
- expressed an interest to develop depth in the Chinese auction market, providing Chinese bidders (as well as an ambition for international buyers) an alternative to the "Tier 1" houses (this topic often referenced spurious and unethical practices at the highest level, but also spoke to an appetite (actually, hunger) for entrepreneurial endeavors)
Having successfully transitioned to "China time," the American group quickly changed into more comfortable clothes (and I gratefully grabbed a quick Facetime convo with Jeff and the kids before they headed off to school) and headed over to the SK Tower complex, without a Chinese guide. We enjoyed a delicious dinner at Lei Garden, despite a communication challenge (no one working in the restaurant spoke English, and we certainly did not speak Chinese!), and I only passed on a handful of dishes (Shark Fin Soup was not my gig...and, after hearing from my children about the ecological issues related to it, I'll take a pass next time). Returning to the hotel, a few of us grabbed a bit of Port and scotch at the hotel bar, sharing many stories about our experiences in the auction world.
Check back for Part 2 of my China adventure!