THE selectivity in the Chinese ceramics and works of art market seen in London in early November was repeated during Christie’s and Bonhams’ latest Asian series in Hong Kong.
Successful bidders paid a premium for rarities, but an absence of speculative buying precipitated by the credit squeeze in China meant more routine or ambitiously estimated ceramics and works of art enjoyed a less enthusiastic reception.
This selectivity was reflected in the selling rates at Christie's Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on November 30 and Bonhams' Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on November 28, which were 57 and 58 per cent sold by lot respectively.
Christie's Hong Kong's 13 auctions of classical, modern and contemporary Asian art, jewellery, wine and watches fetched a premium-inclusive total of HK$2.85bn (£233.6m), an HK$800m dip on their record-breaking Asian extravaganza in May and considerably less than their HK$3.23bn equivalent series last November.
These statistics do not indicate any significant market downturn. The greater selectivity for consignments in this November's HK$514.7m (£42.19m) ceramics and works of art category undoubtedly accounted for some of the decrease, but the dip in the overall tally also reflects the quality of material offered elsewhere. In May, Christie's overall total was boosted by an exceptional modern Chinese painting sale that totalled nearly HK$1bn. Last November's bumper HK$1.13bn ceramics and works of art section was also buoyed by the Fonthill collection.
Of the ceramics and works of art that sold at Christie's, nearly half went above high estimate. Highlights included an Imperial Qianlong (1736-95) underglaze blue and copper-red meiping, which sold to a private Asian buyer at HK$41m (£3.36m) against a HK$25m-35m estimate.
The vase, which headlined the 437-lot mixed-vendor sale on November 30, once belonged to Prince Pulun, the great-great grandson of the Emperor Daoguang (1821-50). The only other known vase with this palette resides in Beijing's Palace Museum.
Aside from Christie's Magnificent Jewels sale, which took HK$644.96m including premium on November 29, the week's highest grossing single auction was the HK$595.2m (£48.79m) premium-inclusive Fine Chinese Modern Paintings auction the same day that fielded a robust 88 per cent selling rate by lot.
This market is largely driven by buyers from Greater China on the hunt for works by modern masters such as Zhang Daqian, Fu Baoshi, Xu Beihong and Li Keran. Paintings by all these artists featured in the top ten.
Foremost was Cui Ruzhou's (b.1944) Lotus, eight scrolls in ink and colour on paper, which doubled expectations, selling to a private Asian buyer at HK$110m (£9.02m) - an auction record for the artist.
Among the notable dispersals at Bonhams' four auctions - variously comprising snuff bottles, ceramics, jades, works of art and paintings - was the Yixing stoneware from the 100-lot personal collection of respected former London dealer Gerard Hawthorn and his wife.
In 2009, the Beijing publication of Yixing Zisha Wares in the Palace Museum was the first in recent years to focus attention on the esteem in which the best quality stonewares were held at court.
Yixing teapots are ubiquitous but Imperial quality Yixing works of art are scarce. The Hawthorns' HK$38m (£3.1m) premium-inclusive assemblage included a number of outstanding examples.
Two rarities with comparable examples in the Palace Museum included the sale-topping 9in (23cm) Imperial Yongzheng (1723-35) inkstone with its original black lacquer box and cover, which took HK$7m (£574,000), and a Qing dynasty 'peach' water vessel with calligraphic inscription that made HK$3m (£246,000) against hopes of HK$150,000-200,000.
The timely assemblage on November 28 predominantly sold to collectors from mainland China and Hong Kong. It boasted an 86 per cent take-up by volume.
However, Bonhams' most expensive entry was the famille rose enamelled glass 'European subject' Imperial Qianlong snuff bottle (pictured here) from Part IV of the Mary and George Bloch collection.
Bonhams' Julian King said this was the bottle many had been waiting for since the collection's first dispersal in 2009. Unlike other six-figure 'European subject' bottles to have appeared on the market recently, it was enamelled on glass, not metal, and was large at 3in (8cm).
It was pursued by an anonymous buyer to HK$22m (£1.8m) - a snuff bottle record.
The white glove auction attracted Western and Asian interest. Successful buyers in attendance included London dealers Robert Kleiner and Robert Hall, Hong Kong collector Robert Chang and Hong Kong dealer Hugh Moss.
Bonhams Hong Kong posted a HK$240m (£19.67m) premium-inclusive total - representing a rise of nearly 15 per cent over their previous Hong Kong high in May.
The buyer's premium at both Christie's and Bonhams is 25/20/12%.
£1 = HK$12.2
By Kate Hunt