Chinese buyers power record $408 mln Christie's sale

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Christie’s sold a record $409 million worth of Chinese art and collectibles at its autumn Asian sales that ended in Hong Kong on Thursday in another sign of ebullient sentiment for high-end Asian and Chinese art.

A man looks at a pink-enamelled blue and white moonflask from the Yongzheng era during a Christie's preview in Hong Kong November 26, 2010. The item was auctioned on December 1. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu (CHINA - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT)

The tally was the auction house’s best in a single Hong Kong auction season, powered by the purchasing power of mainland Chinese millionaires who made up 40 percent or so of sales even as the global economic outlook darkens on Eurozone debt woes.

“There was significant participation again from Chinese bidders. It was a perfect storm of great property and hungry demand,” said Jonathan Stone, Christie’s Asia Managing director.

It wasn’t strong across the board, however, with Chinese contemporary art still struggling to find its footing as more traditional collecting categories of Asian art steam ahead.

In the marquee sales of ancient Chinese artwork and ceramics, the auction house’s staging of three single-owner Western collections; including the renowned Fonthill collection from England helped generate additional buzz for long shelved objects.

An exquisite quartet of sinuous, life-sized Qing dynasty imperial cranes from the Fonthill estate, were snapped up within minutes by billionaire Hong Kong tycoon Joseph Lau for $16.7 million, a new auction record for Chinese cloisonne enamel.

Demand for ornate Qing Imperial ceramics, now easily the most desired and expensive category of Chinese art, remained strong.

A large moonflask adorned with a finely wrought pair of flaming pink phoenixes on a blue underglaze fetched $15.9 million, while another Fonthill heirloom, a bright yellow “famille rose” pear-shaped vase fetched $11.6 million -- a world auction record for porcelain from the Jiaqing period (1796-1820).

For lesser works, however, demand tended to be patchy in an auction hall that wasn’t as packed as that of rival Sotheby’s at its Hong Kong autumn ceramics sales in October, which many veteran dealers hailed as one of the best in recent years.

In that sale, an immaculate million globular yellow Qing vase made $32 million, smashing the Chinese porcelain world record.

Just weeks later, however, in a stunning encore at a provincial auction house on the outskirts of London, an old Chinese vase unearthed in a routine house clearing in England turned out to be a Qing masterpiece and was hammered off for $83 million, sending shockwaves through the Chinese art world.

In other results for Christie’s in their Hong Kong sales, a 14.23 carat pink diamond dubbed “The Perfect Pink”, sold for $23.2 million, a record for any jewel sold at an Asian auction.

Despite the glowing result, global auction goliaths Sotheby’s and Christie’s have struggled to keep pace with home grown auction houses in the China market, whose links to a vast web of collectors and buyers have propelled business to new heights.

Last month, Beijing-based auction house China Guardian sold more than 4.1 billion yuan worth of art and collectible goods, setting a new record tally in China for a single season, far higher than Christie’s Hong Kong record.

The frothy market, however, has also raised red flags.

ArtTactic, an art research firm said the surge in art prices was luring greater numbers of speculators.

“If the current rate of growth continues, we could be in the beginning of a second bubble in the Chinese contemporary art market, inflated by strong Asian demand for high-yielding assets,” the group wrote in a December report.