Auction giant Sotheby's
(BID.N) 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)