Christie’s is locked in a legal battle in the world’s largest auction market claiming an Asia rival is cashing in on its prestige by using a suspiciously similar sounding name.
The global auctioneer has taken action against Chritrs Group in Hong Kong’s High Court, a case which echoes one won by fellow global player Sotheby’s four years ago.
The Chinese auction market has become the largest, overtaking New York and London, although sales have slowed down this year.
Christie’s took legal action after a query over whether a sale by Chritrs was actually one of theirs. The accused company’s name in Chinese is pronounced the same way as Christie’s in the country. The two, which both read Ja Shi De, are also written the same except for one character that is pronounced the same.
Christie’s legal chief Mathilde Heaton said at last month’s hearing that the plaintiff was “deliberately” looking to confuse bidders with the brand name. “We take it seriously as we must protect the public and our clients from being confused and deceived,” she said.
The defence admitted the pronunciation was the same, but countered that its marketing was mainly done in print, where there was a difference in spelling. Chritrs is registered in Hong Kong and believed to have been in operation for several years.
The company’s website said the group has more than 10 offices around the world including China, Hong Kong and Singapore as well as London, New York and Taipei.
Madam Justice Queeny Au Yeung Kwai-yue is yet to hand down her judgement after Christie’s demanded an injunction against its rival along with unspecified damages.
Christies has subsequently placed adverts in three Chinese-language newspapers to warn buyers that Chritrs was taking advantage of the similarity in names.
Christie’s said its Hong Kong operation brought in £519.1m in 2011 out of total revenues of £3.6bn. It has been based in the region for almost three decades, and has a licensing agreement with Chinese group Forever.
In 2008, Sotheby’s won after suing Sichuan Su Fu Bi, which sounds similar to the Chinese version of the global auctioneer, and used the same characters in Chinese. Last year it faced other companies on the mainland looking to trade off its name.
Sotheby’s has set up a joint venture with Beijing GeHua Art Company, making it the first western company to sell art on the mainland.
With art sales estimated at $12bn, China overtook the US as the largest auction market last year. It accounted for 30 per cent of the market up from 23 per cent a year earlier.
Yet, the market has slowed this year, with some blaming supply, the slowdown in China’s growth as well as a customs probe into tax evasion on arts imports.