For the first time in mainland China's history, a work of art went under the hammer Thursday from an international fine-art auction house, following Sotheby's signing of a joint venture with a state-owned company.
The piece, a sculpture by the Chinese artist Wang Huaiqing, was sold for 1.4 million yuan ($222,000, 173,000 euros).
Sotheby's announced last week it was signing the deal with Beijing GeHua Art Company, in a move that gives it a foothold in China -- where foreign auction houses have been prevented by law from operating.
Sotheby's opted for the creation of a joint venture in its years-long bid to overcome the legal hurdle.
"We've seen a tremendous growth of the Chinese art market in the last five years," said Sotheby's Asia chief executive Kevin Ching.
"Five years ago, mainland Chinese business accounted for only about four to five percent of our Asia turnover. Today it is 30 to 40 percent, so it is obviously a market that we cannot afford to neglect."
The new venture is still prohibited from selling antiques, such as ceramics or calligraphy, but the auction house, listed in New York, remains optimistic for the future.
"Undoubtly we'll try many different categories, both Western art, jewellery, watches as well as contemporary Chinese art and we'll see what develops," Sotheby's president William Ruprecht told AFP.
The auction house has said it will be the controlling shareholder in the business.
For centuries the worldwide art market was dominated by a few European auction houses, but a revolution has seen five Chinese houses enter the top 10 by revenue, according to a recent report by information specialist Artprice.
A new generation of collectors in Beijing and Shanghai has pushed China to the forefront.
And Chinese artists Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) and Qi Baishi (1864-1957) now hold the top two places in Artprice's global ranking of artists by auction revenue, ahead of Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).
Five Chinese auction houses are among the top 10 in the world by revenue, according to a recent report from Artprice, the France-based world leader in art market data.
Worldwide auctions revenue jumped 21 percent in 2011, reaching a record high of $11.5 billion, with China commanding a 41-percent market share, said the report.