Mixed results at Sotheby's Chinese paintings sales

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Demand for Chinese paintings was firm but mixed at Sotheby’s Asia sales in Hong Kong on Tuesday, with quality pieces and traditional, more classical paintings trumping the contemporary art market which remains fragile.

Sotheby’s, whose Hong Kong sales in April were much diminished by the global financial crisis, managed to consign 50 percent more works for its current autumn sales series.

But while more sellers have returned amid improved global economic sentiment, buyer demand appeared patchy at Sotheby’s biannual sale, widely considered to be a key market barometer.

In the 20th century Chinese art sale, bidding in the half empty auction room was lackluster for lesser works, but picked up for the few major works on offer including Chinese artist Sanyu’s “Lotus et Poissons Rouges” that made HK$36.5 million ($4.7 million), well above its pre-sale estimate but shy of the artist’s world auction record which Sotheby’s thought reachable.

“People are more conservative now and they’re just waiting for the piece they really like and then go for it,” said Anthony Tao, a Hong Kong gallery owner and dealer at the sales. “It (the market) will only move up step by step.”

Other highlights in the sale which saw 28 percent of unsold lots included a large abstract oil painting by Zao Wou-ki “7.4.61” that made $2.02 million after steady bidding.

In the Asian contemporary sale, Chinese artists once again dominated. While there were few blockbuster prices testing the $1 million mark except Zhang Xiaogang’s “Comrade,” solid results were seen for the works of Liu Ye, Li Songsong and Fang Lijun, with most top lots bought by mainland Chinese collectors.

“It was already up from what we expected,” said Budi Tek, an Indonesian-Chinese collector at the sales, who was hoping to pick up some bargains with the Chinese contemporary market widely seen to have fallen by at least half what it was at its peak.

“I think we’d like to see some good works selling a little bit lower for us to pick up.”

There were however, a number of big misses, as collectors opted for quality and more reasonably priced works.

Of the 23 percent of artwork unsold were a number of contemporary Chinese works once in the hands of prominent British collector Charles Saatchi, including a large “ash head” sculpture by Zhang Huan and a wax waterfall by Zheng Guogu.

Other unsold works included a gunpowder painting by Cai Guoqiang and an untitled portrait by Zeng Fanzhi.

The sale of fine Chinese paintings on Monday saw far stronger demand, with traditional inkbrush paintings and calligraphy by past masters mustering total sales of $23.4 million, more than double its pre-sale estimate, of which 97 percent of lots were sold including Li Keran’s “Tranquil landscape” for $941,000.

“The more traditional categories are going to be more correction proof,” Kevin Ching, the CEO of Sotheby’s Asia told Reuters. “Just as I was cautiously optimistic before, I am now probably optimistic, there are signs people are coming back.”

Editing by Sugita Katyal