Chinese artists records fall in Sotheby's HK sale

HONG KONG (Reuters) - A handful of Chinese artists broke world auction records during Sotheby’s spring sales in Hong Kong on Monday with demand proving robust for certain categories of Chinese art despite a global economic slump.

A handout photo of 'Fishing Harvest', a rare oil painting by Chinese artist Lin Fengmian, which was put onto market for the first time, sold for 2.1 million amid brisk bidding, a world auction record for the artist at Sotheby's Spring auction in Hong Kong April 6, 2009. REUTERS/Sotheby's/Handout

Chinese artist Lin Fengmian’s rare oil painting “Fishing Harvest” which went on the market for the first time, sold for HK$16.34 million ($2.1 million) in brisk bidding, a world auction record for the artist at auction according to Sotheby’s.

A quartet of Lin oil paintings of Chinese opera figures, sold separately, also fetched a combined total of around $3.1 million, far exceeding pre-sales estimates. Of these, “Mu Guiying taking Command” made HK$8.4 million ($1.1 million), more than four times the pre-sale estimate.

Zhu Yuanzhi’s “The Last Supper” sold for HK$6.02 million ($770,000), a world auction record for the artist.

“It was a really nice surprise,” said Lily Lee, the head of 20th Century Chinese art for Sothebys.

Sotheby’s biannual Asian sales in Hong Kong, often seen as a barometer for Chinese art market sentiment, were noticeably smaller this time round given the weak market conditions.

Yet some experts said a combination of cheaper, more realistic valuations and a condensed offering lacking in major blockbuster works, had drawn an unexpectedly robust showing.

“The market is there. Today is very strong,” said Anthony Lin, a fine arts dealer and a former head of rival auction house Christie’s in Asia who attended the day’s sales.

“Obviously they (Sotheby’s) didn’t take risks or they couldn’t find any large works by any of the top artists. But in general it’s pretty impressive in this market,” he added.

While only 80 percent of the lots were sold in the 20th Century Chinese art sale, dealers said demand for premium lots was stronger, especially from mainland Chinese buyers.

“A lot of people were bidding like crazy,” said Hugh Moss, a veteran collector and dealer of Chinese art and ceramics who attended the Sotheby’s sales: “It goes against all recent trends,” added Moss who bid, but failed to buy three paintings.

In the sale of Chinese contemporary art, which has cooled noticeably since a pre-crisis boom, 21 percent of lots were unsold with patchy demand for lesser works. But a couple of Chinese artists, including Huang Yongping and Sui Jianguo, did break world auction records for their works, Sotheby’s said.

In the more established fine Chinese paintings category, 89 percent of the lots were sold in a Sunday sale. Fu Baoshi’s “Drunken Monk” inkbrush painting fetched HK$6.26 million ($801,000), around twice its pre-sale estimate, while the entire sale made a total of $16.6 million, well above expectations.

“It is a very encouraging sign for the market that quality works are highly sought after, with almost three quarters of the lots sold making above the pre-sale high estimate,” said C.K. Cheung, the head of Chinese paintings at Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s inaugural Hong Kong wine sale over the weekend raked in HK$49.9 million ($6.4 million), and was 100 percent sold by lot, reflecting cheaper pre-sales valuations and solid demand for top vintages among wine collectors in Hong Kong which is positioning itself as a regional wine hub.

($1=7.749 Hong Kong Dollar)

Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Bill Tarrant