Sotheby's breaks Asian art sales record in Hong Kong

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Global auction house Sotheby’s notched up its best ever sales tally for an Asian auction series in Hong Kong on Friday, hammering off HK$3.08 billion ($400 million) worth of Asian art, jewelry, wine and watches.

The strong results for the biannual auctions, widely seen as a barometer for the Chinese and Asian art markets, underscored surging demand from affluent mainland Chinese buyers for top tier Chinese imperial treasures and ceramics, though results were mixed and relatively flat for objects of lesser quality.

The $400 million tally exceeded Sotheby’s annual takings for both its Asian sales in 2009 when parts of the Chinese art market were lashed by the financial crisis and buyers stayed away.

Underpinning the seven-day sales was a group of 35 unique imperial treasures from respected private collections that netted $148 million -- more than double the pre-sales estimate.

With mainland Chinese buyers piling into art as a status symbol and as a potentially lucrative alternative investment, intense competition and a diminishing supply of top Chinese antiques coming to market have sent records tumbling.

A yellow-ground famille-rose Qing vase fetched $32.4 million, the highest ever price for a Chinese porcelain piece at auction, a pair of floral medallion Qing bottle vases made $18 million while an imperial white jade seal from the Qianlong period fetched $16 million, a world record for white jade.

“What we saw was just that desperate, desperate hunger for objects of great quality,” said Kevin Ching, the CEO of Sotheby’s Asia in a Reuters interview. “It’s a very delicate chemistry between the collectors’ desires and the outstanding quality of the objects available. There was a growing realization that outstanding objects are in very short supply.”

Half of the top lots were bought by mainland Chinese.

Ching expected the momentum to spill into next year’s Asian sales but conceded matching the caliber of this season’s collections would be difficult as more and more Chinese antiques get snapped up by wealthy Chinese and repatriated home for good.

The hard-hit Chinese contemporary art market saw an early work by Zhang Xiaogang, “Chapter of a New Century -- Birth of the People’s Republic of China II” -- fetch $6.7 million, a world record for the artist, though the overall sale saw around a quarter of lots go unsold.

Older fine Chinese paintings, however, sold well across the board as did a $14 million sale of fine wines bolstered by a growing Chinese thirst for fine vintages.

“Unless there is a major correction in the world economy, I think this will continue to go up,” said Ching.

Ching said the next major frontier for the Chinese could be Western impressionist and modern art, following on the heels of big-spending Japanese in the late 1980s when prices soared.

“Our ability in the longer term is to source and sell the greatest Western art,” said Ching. “Hopefully, in 10 years’ time, Chinese buyers will be big buyers of Western art as well.”