Lai See

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2007, 12:00am

ne w player on auction block ready to duel with big two

Just weeks after Chinese Estates' chairman Joseph Lau Luen-hung plunked down US$17.4 million for Andy Warhol's iconic portrait of Mao Zedong, a third international auction house has planted its flag in Hong Kong, determined to take on the long-established Christie's/Sotheby's duopoly.

For Bonhams, the oldest London auctioneer, it is the first move into Asia. The company is pinning its hopes of success on the greedy appetite of our nouveau super-riche for collectibles.

The firm's local boss is Colin Sheaf, who worked here 20 years ago for Christie's. Here's how much things have changed in the interim - he recalls that during his first posting in Hong Kong, there was only one real potential customer for the Picassos he was flogging.

Now Mr Sheaf (right) figures there are easily 30 local people with private art collections worth more than HK$100 million.

Bonhams, with annual sales of about US$500 million, is hoping to get into the same league as Christie's (US$4.1 billion) and Sotheby's (US$3.4 billion).

bear turns china art bull

One who's been bitten by the art bug is Ting Chuk-kwan.

In her time as a Goldman Sachs equities analyst, which coincided with the Asian financial crisis, she was known as the ultimate bear. But since leaving the firm in 2005, she has been using her analytical skills to make a bullish case for Chinese art.

Ms Ting, who is married to a professor of art, now peppers her friends with e-mail about the subject. Her recommendations are dressed up with graphs and investment buzzwords like alpha. Currently, her biggest enthusiasm is Chinese classical painting. 'The auctions continue to present exceptional paintings at reasonable prices, even if it is critical to vet quality,' she writes.

patten dares market to slide

No egg tarts, no book promotions - and almost no politics. Former governor Chris Patten still managed to deliver an amusing speech at the IFR Asia Awards dinner on Monday.

Lord Patten, who was often mocked for his dress sense in early days at Government House, looked extremely well turned out, even better than Tom Griffiths, of the London cast of The Phantom of the Opera, who warmed up the audience of 500 with a vocal performance.

Lord Patten couldn't resist the slightest of digs at the mainland officials who so often engaged him in slanging matches during his tumultuous tenure. 'Soon after I left Hong Kong, there was an Asian financial crisis ... if the market turns after my visit, you know who to blame,' he said.

fuel cells waiting in wings

Question of the day: Name an industry that has been around for 150 years but never made money.

The answer, according to Britain's Westhall Capital, is fuel cells, which were invented in 1839 by a British physicist, William Grove.

Fuel cells are like batteries except that they never run down or need recharging. Problem is, no one has ever come up with an affordable one, much to the dismay of environmentalists. As Westhall says, the industry is 'stranded in a prolonged research and development phase'.

Still, the firm has put out a buy recommendation on Britain's Voller Energy, whose core product is an auxiliary power unit. Westhall says green awareness may spur the automotive and energy sectors to take more interest in fuel cells, and mergers and acquisitions could result.

preparing for worst

Surely things can't be as grim in the legal profession as the folks at Belgium Waffle Boys would have us believe. The restaurant chain has a recruitment ad in a local weekly seeking kitchen staff, counter staff and ... barristers.

Lai See assumes what they meant to say was baristas, a word derived from Italian that Starbucks uses to describe its counter staff.

Or might your next martini be mixed by Martin Lee Chu-ming?