Hong Kong billionaire Joseph Lau is technically on the loose, but that won’t stop him from cashing in when Sotheby’s auctions off millions of dollars worth of its china next month.
Lau will unload eight pieces from his collection dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties, according to sources cited by the South China Morning Post. Earlier this month, news broke that the billionaire would separately sell rare wine for $3 million at Christie’s.
Lau was convicted in Macau in 2014 for money laundering and corruption; he was convicted in absence to more than five years in prison. The 70-year-old tycoon lives in Hong Kong, which does not have an extradition agreement with Macau, allowing him to dodge the sentence.
The upcoming auctions are raising questions about how a billionaire fugitive could still participate in the top echelon of the luxury trade and whether auction houses have chosen to ignore his sordid past.
Erin Thompson, associate professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said auction houses already have a reputation for dealing with sleazy sellers.
“They don’t make money if they refuse to work with someone,” she wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “Auction houses have successfully lobbied to avoid regulatory oversight, arguing that we should trust them to examine themselves.”
Thompson noted that some auction companies “accepted ridiculously false provenance documents from shippers” and ended up selling looted or counterfeit artwork.
There is no indication that Lau’s items were improperly acquired, although his legal issues may pose a reputational risk to the companies.
Lau was convicted of bribing a Macau government official with more than $2 million in 2005 to help gain access to valuable land near the airport. He resigned as chairman of his publicly listed property group, Chinese Estates Holdings Limited, amid the legal turmoil of 2014, leaving the reins to his son. Lau appealed the guilty verdict but lost in 2015.
Meanwhile, the billionaire continued to indulge. That same year, he spent $48 million to buy his 7-year-old daughter a massive 16-carat diamond. In 2020, he anonymously sold a David Hockney painting, “The Splash,” for around $30 million.
It’s no surprise that auction houses continued to work with Lau, said retired FBI agent Robert Wittman, who founded the bureau’s National Art Crime Team, according to his personal biography.
“Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and they’ll be the first to tell you, they’re in the business of buying and selling. They are not in the business of law enforcement,” he said. “Whether it’s moral or not…it’s a decision for the buyer and the seller.”
Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Lau’s did not respond to requests for comment.
Auction houses do generally operate with a code of conduct, and Sotheby’s code contains anti-money laundering, anti-corruption and other due diligence provisions. US federal regulations also prevent companies from doing business with people on the sanctions list.
Amelia Brankov, a New York-based art attorney, said auction houses can be reluctant to block a buyer or seller who isn’t breaking the law.
“Just because someone has been convicted of a crime doesn’t mean they can’t otherwise transact for legitimate purposes…[such as] sell their property or own a house or buy a meal,” she said.
She added that a conviction does not necessarily mean a person is truly guilty, citing politically motivated charges as an example. “There is no single answer,” she said.
Nearly a decade after his initial conviction, Lau remains stuck in the headlines, and not just for his eight-figure dealings. Shares of Chinese Estates, now controlled by his wife, fell dramatically and the company reportedly lost $447 million last year.
By selling small pieces from his collection, Lau may be trying to hoard some cash. But with an estimated net worth of $13.6 billion, according to Forbesthe latest offers will only be small change.