Masterpieces, jewels sparkle in Sotheby's HK sales

HONG KONG (Reuters Life!) - Chinese collectors still have an appetite for classical Chinese art, jewels and rare artifacts, auction house Sotheby’s said as it revealed the line-up of its Hong Kong sales, expected to net $221 million dollars.

With some once red-hot segments of the Chinese art market, including Chinese contemporary art, still wounded by the financial downturn, more established collecting categories like fine Chinese paintings and ceramics have shown greater resilience, with several rare masterpieces fetching record prices during last season’s autumn sales series in Hong Kong and China.

This time, a rare painting by Qi Baishi, an emperor’s pearl necklace and a rare, large blue diamond are among the lots Sotheby’s expects will fetch top dollar during the April 3-8 auctions.

“The market continues to be solid and strong, particularly when the property is fresh and correctly estimated,” said Nicolas Chow, Sotheby’s head of Chinese ceramics and works of art.

Collectors looking for signs of further momentum in the Chinese art market during Sotheby’s spring sales series, however, may instead see caution weigh.

“I think the market needs some time to digest the results,” said C.K. Cheung, Sotheby’s head of Chinese paintings.

“Prices will be quite stable because of the rapid changes over the past year. It’s quite high,” he told Reuters, referring largely to the fine Chinese painting market, which has seen prices for modern masters like Qi Baishi, Fu Baoshi and Zhang Daqian surge almost 50 percent over the past year.

“But for the future, it’s still very positive.”

As has been the case, even during the darkest months of the financial crisis, China’s wealthiest buyers seem ready to fork out for exceptional, unique works.

Qi’s 1950 inkbrush “Tiger” painting is expected to fetch over HK$28 dollars ($3.6 million), partly given its rarity, symbolism during the Chinese year of the tiger and impeccable provenance from the collection of renowned collector Robert Chang.

While Chinese contemporary art continues to languish, even for top notch artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi, mainland Chinese demand for classical paintings and calligraphy has grown.

“2009 saw Chinese classical painting retake its historic position as the most valued form of art collected by Chinese,” wrote Chuk-Kwan Ting and Eric Otto Wear, classical art market experts and collectors who run the website

“This will be an increasingly important sector in the Chinese art market,” said Ting of classical paintings which tend to be rare, culturally important, and undervalued compared with Western master paintings. “There’s no doubt,” she told Reuters.

Last autumn, a 16th century scroll painting by Ming dynasty painter Wu Bin, “18 Arhats,” sold for a record $24.8 million, making it one of the most expensive Chinese artworks ever sold.

In addition to art, other notable items in Sotheby’s upcoming sale include a pearl necklace reputedly from the Qing emperor Yongzheng valued at HK$12 million ($1.6 million) and a white jade seal emperor’s “yubi” seal worth HK$50 million ($6.5 million) .

Chinese painter Fu Baoshi’s “Flaying Flute in Dongshan” is expected to fetch HK$15 million ($1.93 million), while Wu Guanzhong’s rendering of Hong Kong’s dense urban landscape, “Labyrinth,” could fetch around $250,000.

A 5.16-carat pear-shaped “fancy vivid” blue diamond could also lure bids of up to $5.8 million on robust Asian demand.

Editing by Miral Fahmy