The big sell

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 February, 2007, 12:00am

TO GET A SENSE of how big the Asian art market is today, you only have to look at the recent sales figures of two leading auction houses. In 2004, Christie's two sales in Hong Kong - which included auctions of Asian and Chinese art - totalled HK$1.39 billion. This figure leapt to HK$2.07 billion in 2005 and then to last year's HK$2.84 billion, which, according to the auctioneer, was the 'highest annual sales total set by any auction house in Asia'.

The results at Sotheby's - which split its four sales series, two in Hong Kong (Chinese art) and two in Singapore (Asian art) - tell a similar story: total sales in the region rose from HK$1.83 billion in 2004 to HK$2.36 billion in 2005, before reaching HK$2.56 billion last year.

According to Colin Sheaf, chairman of Bonhams Asia, there's still room in the market to accommodate a third international auction house.

'We're not coming here to beat Sotheby's or Christie's - that's not our objective,' he says. 'We're coming here to expand the market, which is good for Asia. You can always expand an art market.'

He cites the opening of Bonhams in New York last year, a market dominated by Sotheby's and Christie's. His company still managed to generate good sales.

'Suddenly, there's this money in the New York auction market that wasn't there before,' says Sheaf, who's also a deputy chairman of the Bonhams Group. 'Markets expand, and it can happen in Hong Kong. If we have objects here, people out there are going to buy them.'

Having set up office in Hong Kong last month, Bonhams will host its first three auctions: of contemporary Asian art; Chinese ceramics and works of art; and the Green Willow Hall Collection of Jade Carving in May at the Asia International Arts and Antiques Fair.

Items going under the hammer include contemporary pieces from the mainland, South Korea and Japan, and ancient Chinese ceramics, bronzes and jade. In the long term, Sheaf says, Bonhams isn't bound by what Hong Kong traditionally sells, which is Chinese art.

'That is a very narrow interpretation of the local market based on the fact that that's what everyone has done since 1973, when Sotheby's first came here and 1986 when Christie's had its first sales in Hong Kong,' he says. 'There's greater interest in art from the west as Chinese of all kinds become more cosmopolitan and travel more frequently.'

That local property tycoon Joseph Lau Luen-hung paid US$17.4 million for an Andy Warhol silkscreen print of a Mao Zedong portrait last November illustrates this point, the 54-year-old says.

'I believe there's an opportunity to expand the business, but we should do it when we see the collectors' market is there,' Sheaf says. 'We're not going to do it as a gamble. We're selling other people's property. We're not going to suddenly decide to have a sale of American impressionist paintings here.'

The specialist in Chinese art also says its Hong Kong office will act as a springboard for a new client base not only on the mainland but in Japan, India, South Korea, Indonesia and Singapore.

'Hong Kong is a gateway to the art market of Asia, not only China,' he says. 'We have a broader view than that. This city's greatest advantage is that it's a free port. It's very easy to import and export things. We don't see ourselves as coming here like an industrial conglomerate simply to get a cheap route into Shenzhen. We're about selling art. We're very conscious of buyers for art all across Asia.'

Although the biggest client base is still made up of buyers of Chinese art, that doesn't mean they come from the mainland, Sheaf says. There are also important buyers in Taiwan and Hong Kong. 'But that may change.'

In the same way that the Hong Kong auction market has been perceived as being dominated by Chinese art, the Oxford graduate in modern history says people often think Asian ceramics are all about imperial Chinese porcelain.

'It's only part of the market, but that's why it's exciting coming here because of the variety available. Asia isn't just Chinese porcelain,' he says.

Sheaf developed a keen interest in ceramics at an early age - he collected his first piece of English pottery when he was nine. 'It's something in the DNA obviously,' he says with a laugh. 'My grand-father was involved in ceramics. The family, four generations ago, had a small pottery and I've always liked history and English pots.'

It wasn't surprising that he joined Christie's straight from university in 1974 and quickly became a specialist in porcelain. 'I used to know about European porcelain and after joining Christie's I began to learn about Chinese and Japanese porcelain and never grew out of it,' he says.

He made a name after his biggest auction success in Europe, when he organised the Nanking Cargo sale in 1986. Salvaged from the Geldermalsen, a homeward-bound Dutch East India merchant ship sunk in 1752, the cargo of about 150,000 pieces of 'new' Chinese export porcelain and gold was sold, during five days of auction, for a world record total of more than #10 million (HK$153 million).

He was involved with three other shipwreck sales and earned himself the nickname Shipwreck Sheaf.

'Shipwrecks are pretty interesting because they give a window or a moment to a production,' he says. 'There's no other way you can look at 150,000 pieces of different porcelains and say what was happening at a particular period. It's like having a design book for 1751.

'I was lucky the four shipwrecks I sold dated from 1643, 1690, 1750 and about 1810, so there's about 50 years between each. So there's incredible linear spread. You have a complete panorama of over 150 to 200 years of the way Chinese ceramics developed.'

He says people can see clearly the way in which tastes, demand and the shape of the porcelain changed. 'So that's why shipwrecks are important. They're stories and they're incredibly interesting. History has always fascinated me and this is a vehicle for history.'

Other than overseeing the various business operations at Bonhams, Sheaf also lectures at museums around the world on Chinese jade, Chinese export art and western interior, Imperial Chinese art based on the great collection in London's Percival David Collection and early collectors.

There's talk about Dubai being the 'next Hong Kong' and Bonhams is eyeing the market there. Like Hong Kong, it's a free port.

'Importing and exporting art is very easy - that's why our auction business is based in Hong Kong,' Sheaf says. 'Before, it was London, New York and Geneva. Geneva has disappeared and Hong Kong has taken over. Who knows what Dubai will bring?'