Sotheby's Asia sales net $411 million amid market turmoil

HONG KONG Thu Oct 6, 2011 1:59pm EDT

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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Global auctioneers Sotheby's sold HK$3.2 billion worth of Asian and Chinese art, jewelry, wine and watches in its six day Asian sales in Hong Kong, its second highest tally for a sales series in the city despite volatile financial markets.

The sales are considered a biannual barometer of emerging market demand in China and Asia for some of the world's most expensive artwork and luxury goods, with voracious Chinese demand propelling Hong Kong into a global auction hub almost on a par with London and New York for Sotheby's.

The final result, which comes amid difficult market conditions in a week where global financial markets swung wildly as the outlook for the European debt crisis worsened, was cast as a success by Sotheby's, exceeding a pre-sales estimate of some $300 million for the 3,600 lots on offer.

"In the now truly international marketplace of Hong Kong, collectors from all over Asia, in particular Greater China ... have competed with one another and with Western collectors for this group of choice works," said Patti Wong, Sotheby's Asia Chairman, in a statement.

The tally was lower than Sotheby's spring Hong Kong sales in April, however, that netted $447 million from a smaller pool of 3,400 lots, while rivals Christie's hammered off $469 million worth of luxury goods in the same Hong Kong season and faces a potentially stiff test in its upcoming autumn Asia auctions.

Nevertheless, Sotheby's said it was the first time annual sales in Hong Kong had exceeded $1 billion, underscoring Asia's increasingly vital role for revenue generation in global art.

Of all the artwork on sale, Chinese and Asian contemporary art struggled the most, with unsold rates of over 20 percent, including works sourced from the respected collection of avant-garde Chinese art owned by Belgian billionaire Guy Ullens.

Prices for early works by prominent artists like Zhang Xiaogang, were still strong, however, including "Big Family No.1" that sold for $8.4 million.

As was the case during the 2008/09 global financial crisis, China's formidable purchasing power in art circles was undiminished for the highest quality pieces, notably imperial Chinese ceramics and fine Chinese paintings.

A near flawless Ming cobalt blue "meiping" vase with fruit and floral motifs fetched $21.6 million, a world auction record for any piece of Ming porcelain and the most expensive item auctioned during Sotheby's 6-day sales.

The exquisite vase was part of The Meiyintang collection, a unique, respected assemblage of Chinese porcelain collected over nearly half a century by Swiss tycoons, the Zuellig brothers, that nevertheless saw around a fifth of works go unsold, with the market for flawed and medium tier ceramics far less robust.

For older paintings, Wu Guanzhong's "Gezhou Dam," a work of stark lines and colorful dots that made HK$20.2 million, over twice its estimate, while Xu Beihong's languid depiction of a pair of resting buffaloes made HK$18.02 million.

For jewelry, two rare colored diamonds; a fancy vivid orange and fancy vivid blue diamond each made record prices per carat for their specific categories but the broader fine jewels sales saw an unsold rate of 21 percent for 359 pieces offered.

Sotheby's wine auctions over the weekend also showed a possible wrinkle in Chinese thirst for leading French wines.

For the first time since Sotheby's launched wine sales in Hong Kong in 2009 after the city abolished wine duties, it failed to sell out its wines at an auction to tap what has been considered to be an insatiable demand for luxury products from Asia, particularly China.

(Reporting by James Pomfret)

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