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Asian Art Earns Millions Amid Bad Financial Market

China- Hong Kong | Dec 2 2011 | (01:00:54 - EDT)

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Auction house Christie's sold $367 million (USD) worth of Asian and Chinese art, paintings, jewellery and watches in its concluded Asian sales series in Hong Kong on Wednesday even as financial markets remain volatile from Europe's debt woes.

The result was less than rival Sotheby's who made $411 million in its own autumn Hong Kong sales in October, at a time of continued global economic uncertainty that has begun to weigh on demand for luxury goods.

In the major Chinese ceramics and artwork sales, relatively conservative estimates helped sustain bidding interest at a time of financial market volatility, market participants said, but affluent Chinese buyers were far more circumspect, giving mediocre and slightly flawed works a wider berth.

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The top lot was an 18th century Qing Qianlong underglazed blue and copper meiping that made HK$ 46.6 million, though it failed to sell a number of touted items including an early Ming dynasty blue and white "bianhu" moonflask that didn't reach its low estimate of $3.7 million.

A copper-red "mallet" vase from the Qing period was expected to fetch at least HK$15 million but was hammered off for HK$11.86 million amid muted bidding, with the auction house often willing to accept bids below the low estimate to secure sales.

The biannual sales are considered a barometer of the Asian art market with Hong Kong having burgeoned into one of the world's three leading auction hubs after New York and London.

Rivals, Sotheby's, by contrast, notched up blockbuster results in its October sales for some exceptional works, including an early Ming cobalt blue Meiping vase that fetched a record $21.6 million, the costliest Ming ceramic ever auctioned.

For Christie's, while traditional collecting categories like ceramics and classic Chinese paintings were more robust in the face of broader economic strains, investor caution weighed more heavily in the Asian 20th century art and Asian contemporary art market with unsold lot ratios of 24 percent.

Although the sale racked up a combined HK$705 million, beating a pre-sale estimate of HK$540 million, key works by Chinese artists Zeng Fangzhi and Zhang Xiaogang went unsold in an evening sale. The auction hall while packed, rarely buzzed.

Zhang's early 1993 "Portrait in Yellow" languished unsold after failing to make the low estimate of HK$25 million.

"The market is very cautious but we did have a lot of after sales right after the auction yesterday," Eric Chang, the head of Christie's Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art Department told Reuters. "Some are still ongoing. Estimates were too high and recently the market has had very high expectations.

The works of Chinese abstract master Zao Wou-ki, however, again performed strongly, with his "Cerf volant et oiseaux" fetching $4.5 million, over double its estimate.

In the fine Chinese modern painting category, 88 percent of lots were sold including a set of inkbrush scrolls by Cui Ruzhou for $15.9 million, a world auction record for the artist and the most expensive item sold in Christie's autumn Asian sales.

The wine sales, which have normally performed exceptionally well in Hong Kong to serve voracious Chinese demand, notched up a respectable $8.3 million but saw far higher unsold lot ratios than previous auctions in Asia's wine hub.

"I did really expect it to go better. I knew that Lafite was soft and that it had struggled in my competitor's auctions in recent months but I didn't realize the depth of the problem," said Christie's Head of wine sales, Charles Curtis.

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