SOTHEBY’S latest Asian series represented an all-time high for the firm in Hong Kong.
The 11 classical, modern and contemporary Chinese art, watches,
wine and jewellery auctions held from April 1 to 8 posted a
premium-inclusive HK$3.49bn (£274.8m) - a 13 per cent rise on their
record-breaking series last October. Chinese ceramics and works of
art was the highest grossing category, with four sales contributing
more than a third of the overall total.
However, the series was not plain sailing. Mainland Chinese
buyers are the lifeblood of this highly lucrative market, but late
payments have become a thorny issue for auction houses the world
In this series, Sotheby's took a tougher stance on late payers,
barring a number of major buyers with poor track records. In this
they followed the lead set by Toulouse auction houses when selling
two important Qianlong works of art in March (reported here).
At the risk of slowing down the market, big deposits and
contractual obligations to settle quickly are expected to become
the norm at major sales in London and New York.
So while Sotheby's specialist Nicolas Chow can be confident
payments will be recovered promptly for this series, the absence of
a few key players coupled with what some dealers felt were 'final
price' estimates, took the fizz out of the highest profile outing
of the series: a selection of 77 ceramics from the Meiyintang
collection of Imperial Chinese porcelain.
The April 7 sale made just half its low estimate at a
premium-inclusive HK$399.4m (£31.4m) and take-up by lot was 70 per
cent. Buying at auction is an intensely psychological game and the
mood at any sale is critical: here Mr Chow felt confidence was lost
in the room after the collection's early highlight, the Imperial
Qianlong (1736-95) falangcai (foreign colour) golden pheasant vase
failed to sell.
Nevertheless, there were post-sale deals to be done. The vase
did sell immediately after the sale for its HK$180m (£14.2m) low
estimate to a buyer from outside of mainland China. A second
high-profile casualty, a Chenghua (1465-87) mark and period palace
bowl, was also secured by a non-mainland Chinese buyer within 20
minutes of the sale's closure for its low estimate at HK$80m
During the sale, London and New York's Littleton and Hennessy
secured the most expensive ceramic, a Xuande (1426-35) blue and
white brush washer, at HK$45m (£3.5m). They had come prepared to
The Meiyintang collection (the name translates as Hall among
Rose Beds) is widely acknowledged to belong to wealthy Swiss
nonagenarian Stephen Zuellig. He assembled this exclusive holding
over half a century together with his late brother Gilbert, who
focused on earlier works from the Neolithic to the 13th century. A
further tranche from this published holding is expected.
There was more of a buzz and bidding was more spirited for what
the trade felt was a more attractively estimated group of material
in the 337-lot, mixed-vendor outing the following day. It fetched a
premium-inclusive HK$583m (£45.9m) while the HK$125.4m (£9.9m)
single-owner sale of 26 rhinoceros horn carvings from the Edward
and Franklin Chow collection fielded just one casualty.
Outside of this collecting field, various in-house records
tumbled, with white glove auctions of wine and contemporary Chinese
art, including the celebrated 105-lot Ullens holdings which fetched
HK$427.2m (£33.6m) including premium.
The collection included important early works from the 1980s to
early 1990s by established artists and was headlined by Zhang
Xiaogang's HK$70m (£5.5m) triptych Forever Lasting Love -
an all-time high for the artist and well in excess of the previous
The triptych featured in Beijing's seminal 1989 National Art
Gallery exhibition China Avant-Garde, after which it was
split between two collectors and later reunited by Baron Ullens,
the Belgian founder of Beijing's largest private art museum, the
Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art.
The lion's share of the collection sold to Asian buyers,
although American and European collectors took home a quarter of
the works of art.
The success of the Ullens collection is the latest signal that
the contemporary Chinese art market has bounced back following the
downturn in 2008, although buyers remain selective, focusing on
early significant works with provenance.
£1 = HK$12.7
By Kate Hunt