“Bringing Chinese buyers to the auction house”: an interview with Qiqi Jiang, founder of Epailive

 Beijing  |  26 August 2015  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

At a time when online auction platforms are multiplying and the globalisation of the art market has completely done away with geographical boundaries, China too, is working its way onto the net. Qiqi Jiang, founder of Epailive, a Chinese online auction website that allows the Chinese people to access works of art from auction sales taking place around the world, has taken the time to tell Art Media Agency about her work which consists in bringing art to the Chinese.

How did you come up with the Epailive auction project?
Well, I spent four years in Oxford, England, for my PhD research and while I was there I discovered a small auction house. So I regularly attended their auctions and sometimes these included lovely Chinese items. So I thought to myself, if Chinese buyers — who would be very happy to discover these objects — could have access to such auctions, it could lead to much better business. From there, I discovered that many similar small auction houses exist, and I started thinking about ways to connect them with buyers who live on the other side of the world. That’s how I launched the online auction platform Epailive in 2012.

What’s Epailive’s objective?
Today we have partnerships with over 5,000 auction houses around the world, including Asium in France, the German auction house Auctionata, Koller Auctions in Switzerland and Heritage Auctions in the United States. Through these partnerships, our objective is to bring Chinese buyers closer to the auction houses, thanks to our technology services like live bidding and absentee bidding. Today, the number of buyers has reached 200,000. To make our buyers’ experience more pleasant, we have also developed a searching engine, allowing them to easily find objects they love.

What type of merchandise do you sell?
We sell almost everything, from Chinese art to Western art, including antiques, paintings, silver, jewelry, contemporary art, furniture and much more. But we also offer luxury brands like Cartier, Louis Vuitton or Hermès for example. These can all be found on our platform. For all these items we work through the auction houses, which keep the objects until they are sold.

What type of buyers do you attract?
Our buyers are art collectors and art enthusiasts, usually aged between 30 and 50. We attract a great deal of professional art collectors, who are business executives specialised in different industries all across Asia. Lately we have also started seeing more and more online buyers from the Asian middle class. Our platform often improves their knowledge of the art market, leading them to want to start a collection.

Are these buyers exclusively Chinese?
Well, for now, our platform is only in Chinese, so it attracts Chinese speakers exclusively. But sometimes there are expatriates who live in Hong Kong, Taiwan or Singapore for example; these countries have lots of people who speak Chinese too. We have already planned to translate our website into English, in order to attract international buyers. But for now, we want to focus on the fast-growing Chinese market only.

What are your other strategies to attract more buyers worldwide?
In order to reach the international audience we have a number of strategies. We believe that Internet and technology in general are making the art world smaller. Our approach includes keeping our audience informed about the Chinese and international market through social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. We’re very active in terms of social media and communicate with our followers on a daily basis. We publish sales results and articles focusing on Chinese collective behaviour and release news about what is happening on the global art market.

How did your partnerships help expand the reach of your auction house sales abroad?
Well, the auction houses we collaborate with send us their catalogues on a regular basis, which are viewed by collectors worldwide. Epailive also uses several marketing tools to promote its auctions, such as weekly EDMs (Electronic Direct Marketing) featuring upcoming sales from our partners and recommended lots handpicked by our specialists; the mobile messaging application WeChat, very popular in China, informing about upcoming sales and events; a Chinese social media called Weibo that enables users to comment and repost articles; and a monthly publication called Art Trade Journal published in Mandarin focusing on expert opinions, interviews and art market exclusives. Through these channels, we promote our international partners, their upcoming auctions and special items.

Epailive provides an international shipping network to send its artworks to buyers’ homes. We work with this network in order to reduce the auction house’s work. If a Chinese bidder has successfully bid, we have a shipping department in that city that collects the artwork, avoiding shipping costs for the buyer and auction house. I think customer service is part of the buying experience, which greatly influences the sales.

Do you think your platform has helped to increase Chinese interest in art? 
We bring auction houses — which all have their own specialty — to the Chinese people. Our database shows that sales of antique silver has seen an average increase of 380% per year since 2012 while Western paintings have increased 200% from 2013. That’s enormous. Our job consists in identifying such trends so we can share that information with the auction houses, which in turn adapt their merchandise in order to increase their sales effectively. Our educationally themed articles have also helped enhance interest in art; silver is one subject that we cover regularly. In these articles we write about different regions and eras of silver production and explain how to identify the pieces and how to polish and preserve them. We also hold monthly offline events, lectures, and private sales. Those activities again provide information at the same time as generating more interest. Silver is something buyers love very much. Epailive has even produced videos that demonstrate how Western people used to eat with silver cutlery in the past.

Why are they so keen on silver?
Chinese people are very fascinated by silver, particularly by teapots and coffeepots, which are very popular. Their enthusiasm started when watching Western movies set in palaces, or in the homes of wealthy families. It’s that entire world that has enchanted them. Of course we do have beautiful traditional ceramic teapots, but China lacks modern luxury brands that produce home-style items. In the past, we used to produce excellent objects, but these times are over. This explains why Chinese people rather turn to Western products. Silver is a precious metal Chinese people are extremely attached to. In the past, elite families used a lot of silver at home. Today, we are witnessing a new phenomenon in big Asian cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where many wealthy housewives attend classes given by a group of British teachers to learn about table manners using Western cutlery and items. These classes just started last year but they’ve become very popular among the Asian elite population.

Epailive has a large presence on the Chinese art market, how is your platform different from other Asian online auction platforms?
Firstly, Epailive’s business model is unique. We’re the only ones in Asia offering live bidding. Other platforms sell art, but they don’t offer live bidding nor do they provide the optional absentee bidding. Live bidding means that you can participate in a live auction in Paris while being in Beijing. If you’re busy or travelling, you can leave a bid, and our technical platform service can bid on behalf of you. Secondly, we are global. We work with 5,000 auction houses around the world. This number represents 95% of the market share. The other Chinese art businesses are regional and focus on Chinese objects exclusively. Finally, we protect buyers and sellers. In order to increase the auction house’s trust, we ask buyers to first make a deposit; only then do we let him bid. This is a guarantee of payment for the auction house. In terms of buyers, we provide information about the auction house, and more detailed explanations about the merchandise. That’s why the two feel comfortable using our platform.

What do you think are the advantages of an online auction sale rather than a regular auction sale?
First of all, it’s the fact of being able to reach buyers all around the world and the possibility of participating in several auctions at the same time. Buying online also saves accommodation and travelling costs. Another advantage of online platforms is that you don’t have to show yourself to the pubic: in China, big buyers prefer being discreet. Professional collectors are often successful businessmen and they want to remain anonymous. For auction houses, an online platform mans that they can reach more buyers globally. They also save money because they don’t need to print catalogues.

What can you tell us about Epailive’s growth over the past years?
Epailive was started four years ago and we have managed to build strong links with our partners. Those auction houses are based in 230 cities, on five different continents. On the buyers’ side, we also have grown rapidly, and we now have 200,000 active buyers, which represents a 53% increase compared to 2013. A few months ago we broke a new record; we sold a single lot consisting of a Chinese Scroll painting by Shi Tao for 64,400,000 RMB, that’s approximately €9.5 million.

How do you hope Epailive will evolve in the future?
Right now, we’re in the process of upgrading our platform to accommodate our users. Epailive is developing a new bidding service interface within WeChat where users will receive messages from Epailive with links about auctions or special items, which you can share with your contacts. Clicking on the link will enable you to proceed directly to the bidding. This “all in one” application will allow many businesses to gain more visibility and branding identity within the platform and has an enormous potential for Epailive as a convenient and mobile tool for its buyers.

We’re also planning to create a showroom. People will be able to exhibit their goods and sell them. At the same time the space can serve as a storage facility. This is interesting because we’re shifting from an entirely online platform to… an offline business. In terms of art, this is of interest: it’s important to us to show the quality of our merchandise, and even though we do our best to provide detailed information to our buyers on our website, we think it is necessary to create a space where buyers can get a feel of the objects we sell in general. Every artwork is unique and therefore it will be interesting to see how it will develop in a context where Internet and online bidding are taking over. Art buyers will always prefer seeing it in person.

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