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Chinese Auction House Founder Is Now Sotheby’s Largest Shareholder

Sotheby’s has disclosed that Chen Dongsheng, founder of Chinese auction house China Guardian and chairman and chief executive of Taikang Life Insurance, has become its largest shareholder, Chris Buckley of the New York Times reports. Dongsheng upped his stake in Sotheby’s to 13.5 percent, which raises the value of his shares to $233 million.

“Members of management and the board of Sotheby’s have met with Taikang executives and warmly welcome their support of Sotheby’s strategic initiatives,” Tad Smith, Sotheby’s president and chief executive, said in a statement. “Sotheby’s management and board continue to implement those initiatives with the expectation that all shareholders, clients, and staff will benefit.”

Dongsheng, who married Mao Zedong’s granddaughter, Kong Dongmei, has been a leading figure in the Chinese art market for some time. His interest in auctions originated in 1987 when he first watched Vincent van Gogh’s sunflower paintings raise $39.9 million during a sale in London. “The images of the auction on television seemed inconceivably distant from my own life,” Chen wrote in his memoir. “So aristocratic, so refined. For China, an economically backward country that had never shaken off its revolution, the disparity with those scenes on television was too much.”

In 1993, Dongsheng established China Guardian, the country’s first auction house to specialize in Chinese art and artifacts. In order to do so successfully, he visited a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong and videotaped the sales room so that he could replicate how Sotheby’s conducts business. “I want to create China’s Sotheby’s, and I want to re-create China’s cultural aristocracy,” he said an interview in 2014.

While Sotheby’s has offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, Christie’s was the first global auction house that was issued a license to operate independently in China. Meg Maggio, the director of Pékin Fine Arts, which has outposts in Beijing and Hong Kong, said Dongsheng’s investment in the auction house “might give Sotheby’s an important ally in China.” She added, “Guardian also needs a strong overseas presence.”