The expansions by Guardian and Poly come amid signs of cooling. China is estimated to be the world's biggest fine art market, accounting for 30 to 41 percent of global sales, according to various estimates. But research firm ArtTactic says the market is slowing, with results showing Sotheby's, Christies, Guardian and Poly raising $1.5 billion in their spring sales, down 32 percent from the autumn 2011 auctions.
Sales volumes are "significantly down," said Michael Frahm, who runs a London-based art advisory firm and specializes in new Asian art. "I think the overall market is cooling a little bit, and it's definitely down from last year."
Chinese collectors' enthusiasm may also be damped after an investigation earlier this year by mainland authorities into tax evasion on artworks.
Sotheby's Asia CEO Kevin Ching shrugged off fears of a China slowdown, saying it was just "bumps in the road." He said the company's joint venture, Sotheby's (Beijing) Auction Co., is planning its first proper auction in China next spring, probably of wine, watches, jewelry and Western art.
Sotheby's invested $1.2 million for an 80 percent stake in the venture, which held a symbolic first sale last month of a single sculpture. Ching said Sotheby's spent six months in a "laborious and protracted process" trying to set up the venture.
"Different licenses, different authorities, different government levels would be approving 10,000 things that would be needed for the company to be operational," he said.
He said he wasn't worried about Guardian and Poly expanding into Hong Kong, saying they were "healthy competition" rather than a threat. Sotheby's, which rang up $1 billion sales in Hong Kong last year, may even benefit from the Chinese collectors that the mainland rivals bring to Hong Kong.
"Once they've learned how to buy in Hong Kong, how to do online bidding and phone bids, these people will come over to us very soon."
Follow Kelvin Chan at twitter.com/chanman
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.