Art dealers in HK look beyond mainland buyers
The winds of caution have arrived in the art auction market following Beijing's order to rein in speculative activities, and the exposure of art buyers dodging mainland import duties.
These factors - plus the gloomy economic outlook - are believed to be the reasons behind lukewarm results on the last day of Christie's Hong Kong spring auctions.
Christie's closed its Hong Kong spring sales on Wednesday with HK$2.7 billion on the books - a slight decline from last autumn's total of HK$2.85 billion, but exceeding the pre-sale estimate of HK$2 billion.
More than 90 per cent of the fine Chinese modern paintings, artworks by Cui Ruzhou, and Asian 20th century and contemporary pieces put up by Christie's were sold.
But only some 64 per cent or less of the lots at two auctions of Chinese antiques found a buyer. A sale of imperial works took a total of HK$219 million, while one of Chinese ceramics and art by various owners fetched HK$225 million.
Last spring, though separate figures for Hong Kong were not available, Christie's Asia closed with a total of HK$4 billion on the books, which included its Hong Kong spring auctions, off-season sales of fine wines and a Beijing sale under brand licensee Forever.
A Hong Kong-based Chinese antiques dealer said the Hong Kong spring auction results were expected as there had been fewer speculative purchases. 'Even mainland buyers are cautious these days,' the veteran dealer said.
At the National Finance Working Conference this year, Premier Wen Jiabao said all kinds of trades including those in fine arts and crafts must be strictly regulated. And Beijing's customs authorities recently revealed that 10 million yuan (HK$12.23 million) in import duties and taxes on artworks had not been paid. These two developments caused mainland art buyers to be more cautious.
But all is not gloom. 'People are used to the headline-grabbing sales. But in fact the market is healthier now because it is left with real collectors coming from not just China but around the region,' the dealer said.
His remarks echoed those of Steven Murphy, Christie's International chief executive, who earlier told the Post that 25-30 per cent of this season's buyers were new players from outside China.
However, the crises in Europe and America are yet to be resolved, and China's economic growth is set to fall to its worst since 1999, according to a World Bank forecast last week.
Auction houses that have streamlined their sales with distinctive focuses have found a way to navigate the currents.
Bonhams Hong Kong's spring auctions raked in HK$312 million, 50 per cent up from last spring and a record result since the auction house began selling in the city in May 2007. Three out of eight auctions saw 100 per cent sales, including the Bloch collection of Chinese snuff bottles.
A rare imperial portrait of Chunhui, consort of emperor Qianlong, in oil on paper by Italian Giuseppe Castiglione, was sold to an Asian private buyer for HK$39.86 million.
Bonhams also held its first contemporary art sale by a single-owner collection in Hong Kong, achieving HK$90.6 million, more than doubling the pre-sale estimate.
United Asian Auctioneers (UAA) also did well, achieving HK$32.4 million with just 65 lots on offer, compared with last May's HK$39.5 million with 147 lots. Indonesian master Affandi's Me and My Cigar fetched more than HK$4 million. The late Japanese painter Tetsuya Ishida's Prisoner sold for more than HK$6.3 million, while another painting by the 31-year-old sold for HK$1.3 million at Christie's.
'We have concentrated on very selected lots, focusing on our target market,' said Daniel Komala of Southeast Asian auctioneer Larasati, which conducted its Hong Kong spring sale under UAA. 'If the market is buoyant, the greater the number of lots, the greater the profitability. But we will be very selective in the next year or so.'
Pre-sale estimates exclude the buyers' premium.
Price, in HK dollars, brought in by Christie's for At the Cockfight by Affandi - nearly four times its estimate