At an age – just over 60 – when many people might be thinking of winding down their professional career, Christie’s François Curiel moved halfway across the world to take on a massive new challenge. Since the beginning of this year he has headed Christie’s Asia, where he is devoting his sharp intelligence to figuring out, as he puts it, “how to find the key to opening in China”.

Renowned for his auctioneering skills, particularly in his speciality, jewellery, Curiel is a Christie’s man through and through. He started at the auction house in 1969 and his career has taken him from his birthplace in Paris to London, Madrid, New York, where he set up Christie’s office in 1977, to Geneva in 1989 and back to Paris in 2000 after the French finally allowed – after a grim rearguard action – foreign auction houses to operate in the country. He has been director and group deputy chairman of Christie’s since 2004.

He moved to Hong Kong in January (as president, Asia) crowned with the glory (shared with François de Ricqlès, now chairman of Christie’s France) of having pulled off the spectacular Yves St Laurent sale, which made saleroom history last year with its $443m total.

We meet in Christie’s stately Paris offices during one of Curiel’s frequent trips back to Europe. Blue-eyed, compact and energetic, he is wearing a sober dark suit with the tiny scarlet rosette of the Légion d’honneur, second in the three-rank award.

As we talk he frequently jumps up to fetch a document, request a photocopy or find a statistic.

Unfolding a chart, he points at the list of the world’s top auction houses, compiled by the French Conseil de Ventes in 2009.

“Have you ever heard of Shengjia? Or Xileng? Or Changfeng?” he demands, stabbing the list with a finger. “They are all Chinese – and they’re all in the top 20 auction houses! Four Chinese auction houses are in the top 10 – nine of them in the top 20!”

He hasn’t finished with the statistics. “The top houses, Guardian and Poly, sell over $250m each per annum: it’s not much compared to Sotheby’s and Christie’s, but it’s ahead of Bonhams and Phillips. Ten years ago they didn’t even exist; there was no tradition of auctioneering there.”

The growth of these mainland salerooms is worrying the western auction houses: last year, the Belgian investor/collector Guy Ullens sold a Ming dynasty scroll by Wu Bin for a record $24.8m, along with a Song dynasty scroll which made $15.91m, a new auction record for Chinese calligraphy – both through Poly.

Western salerooms, for the moment, cannot operate on the mainland. “Cultural relics are off-limits to foreign auction houses,” explains Curiel. “Even the licence you need is granted at the discretion of the authorities. We could sell jewellery, watches, wine, contemporary art, but the big business there is in ‘cultural relics’. That’s why I moved to Hong Kong. I want to find the key to the door.”

In a way Curiel has been here before. When he returned to France in 2000 it was to open up the French market, which had been debarred to foreigners for 450 years. “Could it take two, three, five years for China? I really don’t know,” he says. As for a solution: “Is it to buy an auction house in China (not permitted at present)? Is it to develop the relationship with Forever, a local saleroom that licenses the Christie’s name? Is it to grow organically starting with watches and wine? I don’t have the answer yet,” he says.

I ask him about the diplomatic row resulting from the aborted sale of the Chinese zodiac heads in the YSL sale, which were originally looted from the Summer Palace. The Chinese government had vociferously objected to their sale, but Christie’s went ahead anyway. The heads were hammered down to a Chinese buyer for $40m, but he never paid for them, as a patriotic gesture. “I know the issue is there but it hasn’t materialised in my talks with the authorities,” says Curiel, who claims that the “scar is healing”. “There seems to be one outcome, though,” he says. “The Chinese have launched a census of all major Chinese works of art kept in museums and private collections. They estimate there are 1.5m of them, in 2,000 collections in 47 countries. I think the heads were the trigger. But I don’t know what the consequences will be.”

Shrugging on his jacket as he takes me to the door, Curiel says: “In 2009 the value of the Chinese art market represented $2.2bn. In 2009 it grew by 5 per cent, when other markets fell by about 30 per cent. We believe that by 2015 the size of the Asian art market will be $5bn, compared with the whole of Europe which will be $6bn, and the US which will be $4bn.

“The future for China is absolutely extraordinary, and I am fascinated by it. I was proud to be asked to do this at over 60, I love the life there, I love this challenge. I am thinking all the time ‘how can I do it?’, and ‘how can I do it harmoniously?’”

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