Sotheby’s sells record $447 million of Asian art

HONG KONG, April 8 (Reuters) – Auction giant Sotheby’s
sold $447 million worth of Asian art, wine, watches and
jewellery in its Asian spring sales, in another bullish showing
for the Chinese art market despite weak results for a monumental
collection of Chinese ceramics.

The HK$3.49 billion tally for its 8-day Asian sales in Hong
Kong — now considered the world’s third most important art
auction hub after New York and London, was the firm’s best
season ever underpinned by strong Chinese buyers — eclipsing
even its blockbuster $400 million autumn season last October.

But beneath the banner results were some signs of weakness
in the red-hot Chinese ceramics market that is now a cornerstone
of Sotheby’s biannual and closely watched Asian sales.

A major collection of Chinese ceramics, seen as one of the
best to be sold in decades, failed to live up to expectations in
a conspicuous setback for the market, with 30 percent of the
porcelain going unsold amid muted bidding, while a collection of
Chinese imperial objets d’art including ancient jades, a gilt
dragon and a golden robe ended up 55 percent unsold.

The Meiyintang collection, assembled over half a century by
Swiss pharmaceutical tycoons, the Zuellig brothers, was seen to
be perhaps the best remaining classic Western collection of Ming
and Qing ceramics, but flaws in a few major works, tighter
credit requirements for buyers and sky-high estimates weighed on
sentiment, dealers and collectors said.

“I think they (Sotheby’s) pushed a bit too hard on the
prices,” said Nader Rasti, a Western dealer of Asian antiques.

One exceptional piece — an eight-inch tall Qing vase with a
brilliantly painted pair of golden pheasants, near flawless save
for a crack on the stem fastened by rivets, had been expected to
fetch $23 million, but bidding spluttered after the opening
price was set at HK$100 million.

The so-called “falangcai” vase with exquisite enamelling,
hammered off in 1997 for just HK$9 million, was sold privately
after the auction for HK$200 million, Sotheby’s said.

A lustrous and silky smooth blue and white palace bowl from
the famed Chenghua Ming period (1465-1487), also went unsold
after failing to hit its reserve price of HK$80 million, but
Sotheby’s said it too, was sold privately afterwards for HK$90
million to an unspecified buyer.

“While we saw guarded bidding during last evening’s auction
of The Meiyintang Collection, the two top lots were sold
immediately after the auction bringing us very close to our low
pre-sale estimate,” said Kevin Ching, the CEO of Sotheby’s Asia.

Bidding was stronger, however, for other ceramics works
auctioned off on Friday including a rare “robin’s egg”
famille-rose revolving vase from the highly desired Qianlong
reign fetched $9 million and an imperial white jade seal linked
to the Jiaqing reign emperor fetched 8.3 million.

A unique collection of antique rhinoceros horn carvings from
the Edward and Franklin Chow collection sold well, notching up
$16.2 million in total, though the top lot, a large dragon bowl,
languished unsold.

These sales suggested that even with the buying power of the
new wave of Chinese mega-collectors who’ve continued to splurge
for masterpieces during the financial crisis, many weren’t
willing to overpay for less exceptional, slightly blemished
works, even with impeccable provenance.

Some marquee lots including a large Ming imperial painting
from the year 1483 of a lioness went unsold as well as many
premium lots from the Meiyintang collection.

GLOWING CONTEMPORARY ART SALE

The brightest spot for Sotheby’s was an evening sale of
Chinese contemporary art from the landmark collection of Belgian
collector Baron Guy Ullens, that raked in $54.8 million and saw
rapid-fire bidding electrify a packed auction hall in a symbolic
boost for the stricken market that has struggled to recapture
its pre-financial crisis fervour.

The centrepiece, an early triptych oil painting, “Forever
Lasting Love” by renowned Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang sold for
$10.1 million, which Sotheby’s said was a record auction price
for a contemporary artwork from China. Experts said Ullens’s
stature as a Chinese art visionary had been a vital catalyst.

Sales of fine Chinese Paintings and 20th Century Art also
achieved robust results, anchored by Chinese master Zhang
Daqian’s meditative “Spring mountains in Sichuan” that fetched
$8.27 million. Sotheby’s wine sales also uncorked $17.5 million
in sales buoyed by a growing Chinese thirst for great vintages.

(Reporting by James Pomfret)

Sotheby’s sells record $447 million of Asian art