Sotheby's Relics Crisis
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Sotheby's Relics Crisis

Sotheby’s and WSW considered that the sale of the items in Hong Kong had the potential to become emotive, with appeals to Sotheby’s alleged insult to Chinese nationalism on the basis that the items should not be offered for sale.

Paul Holmes

From May 1-3, Sotheby’s, the world-renowned auction house, held its annual spring Asia Week auctions in Hong Kong. This marked the third occasion on which Weber Shandwick Worldwide – Hong Kong had worked with Sotheby’s on its Asia Week auctions in Hong Kong. In the 2000 spring Asia Week sale, Sotheby’s featured two Chinese artifacts (a hexagonal vase and a bronze tiger head) from the former Imperial Summer Palace, which is located outside of Beijing, China. Sotheby’s and WSW considered that the sale of the items in Hong Kong had the potential to become emotive, with appeals to Sotheby’s alleged insult to Chinese nationalism on the basis that the items should not be offered for sale. On short notice, Weber Shandwick took on the role of crisis counselor and strategist in addition to its role of promoting the sales. In addition to meeting the objectives of the original communications plan, Weber Shandwick was able to develop and execute a successful crisis management strategy.


In the week preceding the Asia Week sale, protests arose regarding the sale of the two above identified relics.  As a result, public and media interest gradually escalated in the days immediately preceding the auction. 

Several weeks prior to the Hong Kong auction, Chinese relics were pulled from a Sotheby’s auction in New York.  While offering the identified relics for sale in Hong Kong did not breach domestic laws or international treaties, Sotheby’s and Weber Shandwick were aware of the possibility that questions regarding the NY auction may arise, as well as demands that the two relics be withdrawn from the Hong Kong sale.  They were also aware that questions might arise as to the legality of the sale of the relics. The possibility of these questions meant Weber Shandwick was not entirely unprepared. Instead, the principal challenge was to successfully manage competing claims and limit an escalation of the issue.


Weber Shandwick and Sotheby’s decided on a course of openness and communication when handling its audiences – the China and Hong Kong governments; local, regional and international media; protestors and general public.  This strategy was followed to meet the following objectives:

  • Ensure the auction ran without incident as far as possible
  • Ensure the media were kept informed at all times and provided with ample opportunity to obtain Sotheby’s comments/news
  • Ensure there was no damage to Sotheby’s reputation resulting from the sale of the items and attendant criticisms and protest
  • Ensure the overall spring Asia Week sale was not overshadowed by the controversy over the two relics and that important items in other categories were highlighted in the media 
  • Ensure Sotheby’s key messages were incorporated into news coverage

To meet the objectives, the following tactics were employed:

  • Record all media inquiries to ensure the greatest cooperation with the media and 
  • Issue media releases providing updates on Sotheby’s position
  • Arrange for a Sotheby’s spokesperson to meet with the protestors to receive any petitions and complaints
  • Employ additional on-site security to ensure no unauthorized media ‘gatecrashed’ the auction
  • Media (with very few exceptions) and protestors would not be permitted into the sale room
  • Establish a media room adjacent to the sale room
  • Arrange for a Sotheby’s representative to read a short prepared statement on the final sale results in the media room approximately 45 minutes after the sale of the second relic


In the four days leading up to the sale of the two relics on May 2, speculation increased that the items in question would be withdrawn from the sale, and there were a growing number of people and organizations demanding that outcome.  At the same time, auction competitor, Christie’s, was also holding its annual sale, which also included two contentious Chinese relics. The following presents a timeline of events April 28 – May 

Friday, April 28: China State Bureau of Cultural Relics delivers a written request to Sotheby’s and Christie’s asking them to halt the sale of the relics.

Saturday, April 29: Christie’s announces it will still auction its items.

Sunday, April 30: Tam Yiu-chung, a member of the Hong Kong Executive Council requests the relics be withdrawn from the sale and returned to the Chinese people. Tam contends that in 1860, British and French troops looted the items from the Imperial Summer Palace. Other local Hong Kong SAR leaders also ask Sotheby’s and Christie’s to reconsider the auction of the relics.

Elsie Leung, Hong Kong Secretary for Justice, states that in Hong Kong, there is no regulation that prevents the auction houses from auctioning the relics and that they have not broken any domestic laws.  Because of this, the Hong Kong SAR Government does not step in.  However, the Central Government of China formerly demands that Sotheby’s and Christie’s halt the sale of the relics.

A Sotheby’s representative formally receives a petition from protestors requesting the items be withdrawn from sale. The media is advised, via media alert, in advance of the presentation. At the presentation, Sotheby’s acknowledges the right of people to protest.  Sotheby’s also indicates that it takes the protestors’ concerns seriously, and understands their concerns, but defends its right to offer the items for sale.  Sotheby’s sites the fact that it has not breached any domestic laws or international treaties.  The event proceeds smoothly without incident.  

Christie’s auctions its two contentious items behind a metal curtain amid wild scenes of protestors, auction disruptions and scuffles. The media coverage that follows is extensive and negative.

In a broadcast press statement, Sotheby’s states that its items are “scheduled to be auctioned” on Tuesday, May 2 as advertised. Sotheby’s representatives are readily available for comment.

Monday, May 1: Weber Shandwick advises Sotheby’s of the following:

  • There will be huge media interest in the sale that needs to be satisfied
  • The protestors should be allowed an opportunity to, again, peacefully put their case(s) to Sotheby’s
  • The media will want to report, as soon as possible, upon the sale of each of the contentious items (with pictures of the actual sale if possible)

Accordingly, Weber Shandwick arranges the following and advises to the media and protestors:

  • A live television feed of the sale is arranged in the media room
  • A photographer will provide photos of the sale in both digital and normal format within 1-2 hours of the sale
  • Protestors will be afforded the opportunity to again put their case(s) direct to a Sotheby’s representative 

Over the course of two days, Weber Shandwick receives more than 200 media enquiries, all of which are answered by Weber Shandwick or referred to the appropriate Sotheby’s for response.

Tuesday, May 2: Two hours prior to the sale, 200 media crowd around the entrance to the sale rooms. When the protestors (numbering less than 12) arrive, the scene becomes much more rowdy, with camera crews going up ‘down’ escalators in their attempts to get better coverage. A Sotheby’s representative receives a second formal letter of protest, which causes a “media swarm”. While the area is noisy and crowded, the situation never becomes violent or unduly chaotic. The protestors, having had the opportunity to again make their opinion heard, eventually leave the area before the auction commences. The media make extensive use of the media room and appreciate the live-feed from the sale room. Following the sale of the second relic, a Sotheby’s representative reads a prepared statement to the media detailing the sale results from the two relics. A copy of the statement is then made available to the media.

Prior to the auction, no negative coverage was recorded, nor were any negative images/photos used. With only one exception, the extensive TV and print media coverage of the auction highlighted the successful sale of the two items. The media coverage vindicated the strategy adopted, and demonstrated that all objectives were met.  The crisis management was achieved for less than $US20,000.  The total auction sales over the three days were HK$374,000,000 (approx. US$47,948,000).  This was a 49 percent increase in total sales revenue over the Autumn 1999 season.

Article tags
Crisis Management
View Style:

Load 3 More
comments powered by Disqus