SOTHEBY’S latest Hong Kong Asian series saw mainland Chinese buyers come of age in the field of Imperial Chinese art.
To date, a mixture of Western and Asian dealers and collectors have driven the phenomenal growth at the top end of this market with mainland activity largely confined to the mid range.
But at Sotheby's 196-lot mixed vendor Chinese ceramics and works of art sale on October 8, the financial muscle of new and established mainland Chinese buyers triumphed. This group took home the lion's share of the top ten highlights in the HK$422m (£34.1m) premium-inclusive auction - the series' most lucrative outing by far.
Overall, Sotheby's ten auctions of classical, modern and contemporary Chinese art, watches, wine and jewellery posted a premium-inclusive total of HK1.3bn (£104.78m) - representing a vast improvement on the firm's HK$691m (then £60.1m) Spring 2009 tally and their third-highest grossing Hong Kong series to date.
"There is a great deal of optimism in this part of the world and a realisation that material is scarce," commented Sotheby's international head of Chinese ceramics and works of art Nicolas Chow. "The taste of mainland Chinese buyers now dictates the market place with a clear focus on Qing dynasty Imperial porcelain and works of art,"
Few works of art can claim a more Imperial pedigree than the Qianlong emperor's (1736-95) carved zitan dragon throne, pictured above - the highlight of the mixed-vendor sale and the week's most expensive entry. This imposing symbol of power also set a new Chinese furniture auction record at HK$76m (£6.14m), trumping Beijing's Guardian auction house 2008 record of RMB32m (now £2.93m) for a carved zitan table.
A mainland Chinese private buyer in the room, new to Sotheby's but rumoured to be an owner of Beijing's Council auction house, secured the large, 4ft 71/4in (1.4m) wide throne, outpricing Chinese collectors from Ningbo and Taiyuan, Taiwanese dealer Michael Wang, Hong Kong dealer Albert Chan and a Hong Kong collector.
The same Chinese buyer also took home the auction's second most coveted entry: a large 18in (46cm) high Qianlong mark and period blue and white dragon moonflask at HK$35m (£2.83m).
The mixed-vendor sale produced many of the series' highlights, but take-up was selective at 57 per cent by lot. Buyers focused on the big-ticket entries at the expense of lesser-value works such as a 40-lot jade section towards the end of the sale that fielded many casualties.
"If people buy in Hong Kong then they want to buy big. Many mid-range buyers are now intimidated by bidding at Hong Kong," remarked London dealer James Hennessy of Littleton & Hennessy Asian Art, who together with Nader Rasti of Knapton Rasti Asian Art and Giuseppe Eskenazi was among the handful of London-based dealers at the sales.
Taiwanese collectors are still the major driving force in the scholars' object market, as seen at Sotheby's 32-lot HK$64.2m (£5.19m) premium-inclusive Water, Pine and Stone Retreat collection on October 8, a scholar's object collection widely acknowledged to be that of dealer/collector Hugh Moss.
Two different Taiwanese buyers secured the top two lots, with a Qianlong mark and period yellow jade bowl the highlight at HK$11m (£889,000). Take-up rate was a healthy 84 per cent by lot.
Imperial Chinese art headlined the series, but all sale categories reported a recovery in fortunes from earlier this year. Among the most solid performances was the 253-lot Chinese painting sale on October 5 that was 94 per cent sold by lot and totalled a premium-inclusive HK$182.3m (£14.73m), a 40 per cent rise on their Spring total. Li Keran's 1984 hanging scroll Tranquil Landscape took the top slot at HK$6.1m (£493,000).
Elsewhere, paintings by blue-chip contemporary Chinese artists achieved solid prices in the 194-lot contemporary Asian art outing on October 9. Mainland Chinese collectors again secured the majority of top ten lots, headlined by Zhang Xiaogang's diptych Comrade at HK$8.54m (£690,000).
Sotheby's buyer's premium is 25/20/12 per cent. £1 = HK$12.38
By Kate Hunt