Strong Hong Kong sales bode well for Asia art

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Auction house Christie’s sold a total of $137 million worth of Asian art in its spring sales in Hong Kong, above pre-sales estimates, a sign the firm and dealers said would lift sentiment in the Asian art market.

An undated handout photo shows the 1950s minimalist painting "Cat and Birds" by renowned Chinese artist Sanyu which fetched a record $5.4 million at Christie's Hong Kong auction May 24, 2009, a positive sign for the Asian art market which has been battered by the global financial crisis. REUTERS/Christie's Handout

Christie’s had expected to sell $97 million for its four-day Hong Kong spring sales, but the offerings were pared back substantially from a year ago, and conservative valuations helped drum up demand.

Eighty percent of the 1,600 lots were sold for a total of HK$1.07 billion ($138 million). In the fall sale, 70 percent of the lots sold to half-empty auction halls.

The highlight of the auction series was the sale of more established categories of Chinese art, including imperial Chinese ceramics, which saw healthy bidding for top lots.

A record HK$45.4 million ($5.86 million) was paid for a pair of gilt-bronze “dragon” ritual bells from the Kangxi reign, which had been expected to sell for a third of that amount.

“There’s a palpable sense of optimism and a change in mood from the end of last year,” Christie’s CEO Edward Dolman told Reuters on the last day of the sales.

Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s hold biannual Asian art auctions which are seen as a barometer for the market.

“We’re not seeing much weakness, nor much downturn for high quality pieces of Chinese art,” Dolman said.


Other top lots included a Qing dynasty Amphora-form vase that sold for $3.8 million and a “Tianqiuping” celadon-glazed vase that fetched $3.4 million.

“The market gets stronger and stronger. There’s more and more Chinese getting involved. Look at the room, 90 percent were Chinese,” said Richard Littleton, the New York-based dealer who bought the ritual bells.

Despite the optimism, a third of lots went unsold in the Chinese ceramics and artworks sale, with buyers unconvinced by aggressive valuations for cheaper, lower-quality works.

Rivals Sotheby’s sold $88.6 million of art in Hong Kong in April, slightly above expectations, in a scaled-back auction.

Demand in contemporary Asian art overall was patchy, however, with a quarter of works unsold.

The works of a batch of emerging, more cheaply priced, Asian artists set new auction highs, but the works of blue-chip Chinese contemporary artists such as Zhang Xiaogang and Cai Guo-qiang were well off previous highs.

The abundance of Chinese bidders suggested Christie’s row with the Chinese government over the Paris sale of two bronze animal heads, looted by foreign troops in 1860, had not overshadowed the sales, despite calls for a boycott.

Their sale in February stirred up strong nationalistic feelings in China, and sparked protests from Chinese cultural officials who imposed restrictions on the sourcing of high-end relics in and out of the country by Christie’s.

The Chinese collector who bid successfully for the works later refused to pay.