Western art dealers' bet on China market pays off

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am


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Contemporary art paid the price of the stock market turmoil as Hong Kong buyers flocked to the safer markets of Western fine art and antiques, at a major art fair and auction last week.

The big gainers were Western dealers hoping to further establish themselves in Asia, especially in the vibrant China market.

Western fine art and antique dealers who attended the Fine Art Asia fair held at the Convention and Exhibition Centre were pleasantly surprised. Many commented on the mainland buyers' enthusiasm for foreign art and antiques and said they wanted to return to the fair next year.

Contemporary art also suffered at last week's Sotheby's Hong Kong autumn auction of Asian art, antiques, jewels, watches and wine.

The auction fetched more than HK$3.2 billion but record prices were only achieved for some historic pieces or top lots by well established artists.

At the Fine Art Asia fair, English antique furniture dealer Mallett was pleased with sales after making deals with Chinese buyers who had never before bought anything European.

'We have sold enough to come back next year,' said Justin Evershed-Martin, Mallett's associate director. While American and European buyers bought antique furniture for decorative purposes, Chinese buyers paid more attention to the individual quality and craftsmanship of a piece, he said.

Other newcomers were Carlton Hobbs from New York and Kollenburg from the Netherlands, both antique furniture dealers. They said they were testing the market and would return next year.

Stefanie Rinza of Carlton Hobbs said: 'We are very excited to meet [Chinese buyers]. They show great appreciation for aged wood, great interest in history.'

This year's fair saw a sharp increase in participating Western fine art and antique dealers - up to more than 20 this year from a handful last year. The fair had over 100 exhibitors this year, the most in its seven-year history.

The fair's vitality showed the importance of the Chinese market to some dealers. 'People who don't have a foothold in Asia should go fishing,' said English art dealer Michael Goedhuis.

One Hong Kong dealer, who did not want to be named, said: 'The American and European markets are 90 per cent dead. If you don't have the mainland Chinese [buying], you are done.'

The success of the fair's fine art and antiques departments overshadowed its contemporary art section. Some participating galleries selling contemporary art said business had been slow and the quality of works being exhibited was mixed.

Fine Art Asia's founder and director Andy Hei said the fair was generally a success, in particular because a number of dealers in Western fine art and antiques had attended for the first time. Several major deals were made on the fair's final day, Friday, and some multimillion-dollar deals were conducted during the fair, he said.

'Buyers are cautious, and they had to think it through because they are not familiar with Western art,' said Hei, adding that Chinese fine art and antiques also had strong sales. 'Many have already said that they want bigger booths next year, so we are likely to expand.'

He acknowledged that sales of contemporary art were relatively slow, saying organisers would give more thought to the future of that segment of the fair.

'We want to make this an all-round art fair,' Hei said. 'Perhaps we will work with individual artists or stage something thematic next year. Given recent market conditions, newer contemporary works are the most likely aspect to be affected, because buyers will only go for the top lots.'

Painter Zao Wou-ki's work titled 10.1.68 was sold for HK$68.9 million, well above a pre-sale estimate of HK$35 million, in the 20th century Chinese art auction - a new world auction record for the artist.

Mainland artist Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline: Big Family No 1 fetched HK$65.6 million, almost three times more than its previous sale in 2008, in the contemporary Asian art sale. However, nearly 30 per cent of the lots were unsold in that auction.


The world record price reached at a Sotheby's auction last week for a blue and white Ming dynasty porcelain from the famous Meiyintang collection