Sales drop by half in Christie's Asian art sale in HK

HONG KONG Sun Nov 30, 2008 10:44am EST

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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Half the lots in Christie's evening sales of Asian contemporary and Chinese 20th century art went unsold on Sunday, reflecting the bleak global economic outlook and cooling Chinese art market.

Bidding was lackluster with many collectors and dealers not drawn to valuations seen as overpriced given the current market conditions. Only 56 percent of 32 lots of Asian Contemporary art sold, while 46 percent of Chinese 20th Century artwork was sold.

Eric Chang, head of Christie's Asian Contemporary Art and 20th Century Chinese Art, acknowledged the "continuing difficult financial backdrop" but said Christie's was pleased to make HK$140.6 million ($18.14 million) for the two sales.

Major works by artists like China's Zeng Fanzhi, Yue Minjun and Cai Guoqiang, Taiwan's Chen Cheng-Po and India's Subodh Gupta fell short of reserve prices -- which six months ago would most likely have attracted highly competitive bidding.

"The people who were willing to spend HK$5 million was fairly limited tonight," said Roger McIlroy, an art dealer and former deputy Chairman of Christie's in Asia.

"The prices they (the sellers) were seeking were probably more than they'd paid four years ago, with the market at the moment indicating a retraction back a few years in price levels."

One bright spot was Zao Wou-Ki's "Hommage a Tou-Fou," a large abstract work of swirling greys and reds which fetched HK$45.5 million ($5.86 million) -- an auction record for the artist.

The top lot in the Asian contemporary sale was Zhang Xiaogang's "Bloodline: Big Family No. 2" -- a large family portrait from the collection of Hollywood director Oliver Stone which sold for HK$26.4 million ($3.4 million) -- though well below its pre-sale estimate of around HK$40 million.

Zeng Fanzhi's "From the Masses, To the Masses" of China's leader Mao Zedong surrounded by fellow revolutionaries failed to sell at HK$28 million, while Chen Cheng-Po's "The Central Fountain in Chiayi" went unsold, after bids dried up a million dollars short of the low estimate of HK$15 million.

Rival auction house Sotheby's also had a weak showing in its Asian sales in Hong Kong in October, with total sales of $141.6 million, around half the pre-sale estimate, with many choice works failing to sell.

In Western contemporary art, the downturn has also weighed on the market with Christie's New York fall sales of post-war and contemporary auction taking in $113.6 million, around half its pre-sale estimate of $227 million.

The results are a far cry from Christie's glittering sale of Asian contemporary artwork in Hong Kong in May, which broke numerous records for Chinese, Japanese and Korean artists, with Zeng Fanzhi's "Mask Series 1996 No. 6" fetching US$9.7 million, the most expensive Asian contemporary artwork sold at auction.

Christie's fall sales of Chinese and Asian artwork, ceramics, jewelry and paintings worth are expected to fetch around HK$1.75 billion (US$225 million). Hong Kong is now ranked the world's third largest auction market after New York and London.

(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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