HONG KONG — With Asia staggering from economic crises, eyes were on Hong Kong last week as auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's vied for their share of what is left of the fabled Asian wealth. Chinese paintings, ceramics, snuff bottles and works of art went under the hammer along with Western jewelry and watches, fine wines and cognac in this most important of Asian art markets.
The good news is that there still seem to be people willing to spend. The bad is that some pockets--especially Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, for example--have been drained, and everyone has become much more cautious.
A brief year ago, Asian collectors were as flagrant in their spending as Americans during the go-go years of the late 1980s. Regional tycoons can still put out the U.S. equivalent of $1.28 million for a double-strand jadeite necklace or $181,350 for a Pu Ru ink-on-paper landscape painting, but most items in the auctions sold for close to estimates, and there was a substantial percentage of lots that went unsold.
Especially sobering is the fact that though Christie's grossed $27.7 million in this round, its sales a year ago were a record-setting $41.12 million, and last fall--in November, after the beginning of the Asian slump--they achieved an astonishing $42.86 million. Sotheby's total last week was $15.64 million, compared to $40.45 million for the same period last year. It looks like the domino effects of the economic turndown are finally manifesting themselves.
Also noteworthy is the big gap between total sales by the two auction houses--Christie's $27.7 million to Sotheby's $15.64 million. As one art insider said, "This is a true trouncing." In the early 1990s, the two were neck and neck in gross sales in Hong Kong; now Christie's is clearly furloughs ahead.
Obviously the auction houses like to emphasize record prices as highlights of the sales, and some of the highlights reflected the continued craving for Western luxury goods--Cartier jewelry, Patek Philippe watches and vintage French wines.
On April 27, Christie's boasted sales of $11.94 million for its jewels and watches sale, largest ever in Asia. Top-quality diamonds were much in demand, with a 3.2-carat pink diamond ring sold to London jeweler Graff for $1.3 million. Especially good news for the auction house based here is that most of the other buyers were private and Asian-based.
That same day, Sotheby's sale of watches was packed, and a rare platinum perpetual calendar Patek Philippe, circa 1995, fetched $428,410. Total sales for that auction amounted to $2.43 million, an 80% increase over the previous such sale here.
In the evening, the first wine auction held by Sotheby's here also pulled in a roomful of eager bidders and spectators--with extra rows of seats hurriedly set up as the room filled with dark suits. Both Chinese and Western buyers were present, as were telephone bidders, and 90% of the lots were quickly dispatched.
On the fine art side, several of Christie's paintings by Zhang Daqian--the versatile "Picasso" of contemporary Chinese art--netted nearly twice estimates, including "Travelling in Mt. Huang After Shi Tao" and "Lotus." At Sotheby's, likewise, there was spirited bidding for paintings, and Wu Guanzhong's "Waterfall at Mount Huang" pulled in $90,700, well over the estimate of approximately $50,000, with Qi Baishi and Zhang Daqian works also making the list of top 10 prices paid in the modern and contemporary Chinese paintings auction.
But then there were the unsold lots--including works by Zhang Daqian, Li Keran and, perhaps most surprising, a Chen Yifei oil painting of Suzhou, "Blue Water Village," offered at Christie's. The estimate was $71,000 to $84,000, but the top bid was $54,000, obviously below reserve, as the painting was withdrawn from sale.
Last fall at Christie's, Chen's "Poppy"--a portrait of a woman in embroidered period gown holding a fan to her chin and looking beautifully pensive--set a record for the work of a living Chinese artist at auction, $503,000.
Also disappointing was the fact that Sotheby's offering of Chinese ceramics, art and jade carvings was only 50% sold by lot and Christie's offering of Chinese works of art--figurines, tea bowls, vases and other objets d'art from past dynasties--was only 52% sold. But Colin Sheaf, director of Christie's Hong Kong, points to the fact that 60% was sold by value.
"It was a little disappointing since we got little interest from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore--which have been hit hard by the financial crisis," he admits, "so the sales were dominated by Hong Kong and Taiwan buyers."
Instead, he points to the success of the Buddhist paradise sale--a coup for Christie's. It took Anthony Lin, deputy chairman for Christie's Asia, three years to assemble this grouping of gilt bronze Buddhist figures from the 6th through the 18th centuries, and it paid off. The sale generated publicity for Christie's sales in general and brought in serious international bidding for the Buddhist pieces.