Court Documents Show Christie’s Fighting Back Against US-China Trade War

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in On Balance, the ARTnews newsletter about the art market and beyond. Sign up here to receive it every Wednesday.

Court documents recently unearthed by ARTnews reveal that, in 2020, Christie’s filed a lawsuit against the United States government to dispute tariffs on imports that the house alleges were unlawfully imposed during the country’s trade war with China. Christie’s was far from the only company to do so; a few thousand other US-based businesses filed similar claims pushing back on the government’s authority to raise costs on trade with China.

While the lawsuit, still unresolved, is several years old, it offers a unique window into how the art world is often drawn into wider geopolitical and economic conflicts.

At the time of the Christie’s complaint, China and the United States had already been embroiled in an ongoing trade dispute for more than two years. In mid-2017, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), under Trump appointee Robert Lighthizer, initiated an investigation of “unfair trade practices” by China under the 1974 Trade Act. The following March, the USTR issued its findings, noting in its report that the Chinese government’s trade practices were “unreasonable or discriminatory and a burden or restriction on US commerce.” The US responded by imposing a series of tariffs against China, to which China responded with its own series of tariffs.

In fall 2020, US businesses began pushing back on the tariffs. The first such effort came when three tile importers filed a joint lawsuit with the US Court of International Trade (USCIT) in early September, challenging the USTR’s scope of authority to implement taxes on specific Chinese products detailed in Lighthizer’s investigation. Thousands of similar lawsuits quickly followed that dispute, brought by other importers. Christie’s filed one of those suits, levying similar complaints against the US with the same goal: to challenge several rounds of tariffs imposed on imports from China. In documents reviewed by ARTnews, Christie’s said it aimed to “contest the assessment of duties upon plaintiff’s imported merchandise by U.S. Customs & Border Protection.” The house, like many of its peers in corporate America, is seeking refunds on those duties.

A study released in January by economists at the American Action Forum, a center-right think tank, estimated that, as of 2021, the trade war had cost US consumers $48 billion, with the majority of that falling on firms using Chinese imports in their production processes. President Biden has yet to remove or substantially alter the Trump era tariffs.

It is unclear whether the imports referenced in the complaint pertain to art and luxury items, or non-art imports related to Christie’s operations, like art handling and shipping materials. Christie’s alleged in the complaint that the US agency imposed “retaliatory” tariffs on two categories of imports illegally and that the tariffs imposed “adversely affect and aggrieve Christie’s Inc.,” for being required to pay “unlawful duties.” Christie’s said the claims accrued between September 2018 and August 2019.

The complaint further stated the duties were “illegal, null and void” and “contrary to the substantive and procedural requirements of the [1974] Trade Act.” It claimed the government “exceeded its authority” when it moved to add duties to a second tranche of products scheduled in its regulatory lists. The escalation of cost in the second round, the suit alleged, was a “response” to China’s “retaliation” and had “nothing to do with the findings” of its initial 2018 investigation.

(A Christie’s representative declined multiple requests for comment from ARTnews.)

Like the other related lawsuits, Christie’s also alleged in the filing that the US government, by implementing an additional round of taxes on Chinese imports, had violated the Administrative Procedure Act—a US federal statute that governs the way in which administrative agencies of the federal government issue regulations. “They exceeded their authority under the Trade Act and therefore were not in accordance with the law,” the complaint added.

The findings of the US agency’s investigation, the suit added, “[do] not authorize the expansion of remedies to a never-ending trade war.”

The surprising involvement of Christie’s in the US-China Trade War recalls how the auction houses were caught up in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. This past February, US authorities subpoenaed auction houses’ records linked to Russian businesspeople sanctioned due to the invasion. That followed the forming of an international task force in 2022 to investigate assets owned by sanctioned Russians, many of whom are major art collectors. At the time, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips said they would comply with the probes and follow any sanctions.

The current Christie’s suit, like the Russian sanctions situation, is clear evidence of how the art sector, and luxury goods more broadly, are particularly exposed to geopolitical tremors in relations with China and Russia, which have become major growth markets for that sector. China, in particular, already accounts for 20 percent of the global luxury market and is set to become the biggest purchaser of luxury goods by 2025, according to a study published this past February by accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Last year China made up 17 percent of the global art market, a decline from 20 percent in 2021, according to this year’s Art Basel and UBS Art Market report.

A three-panel court and a plaintiff steering committee under the United States International Trade Court’s purview is overseeing the current Christie’s tariff lawsuit, along with the other similar suits. There has yet to be a decision, and litigation appears to be ongoing.