Wary mainlanders out of the picture at art sales

Buyers at Hong Kong art sales a more diverse and sophisticated lot as big spenders of the past hold back in light of tax evasion probe

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 6:40pm

More Asian and international buyers have been dominating art fairs and auctions as mainland Chinese buyers tighten their purse strings because of a prolonged tax evasion probe.

Andy Hei, director of the just-ended Fine Art Asia Fair, said nouveau riche mainlanders who once made impulsive and speculative bulk purchases had been replaced by cautious but sophisticated clients.

"They came back every day to look at the works before making a decision," Hei said.

He said the market had been soft since April when mainland customs started investigating art dealers and collectors for allegedly evading import duties.

Some exhibitors had made less than half their sales to mainland buyers at the fair, with most business coming from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asian buyers.

"It's healthier because we do not only rely on the mainland. It shows Hong Kong is a truly international hub," Hei said.

Hei, a dealer in antique Chinese furniture, said the turnout was up from last year's 19,000 to 20,100, even though the fair, which ended on Sunday, was shortened from six to five days.

Henrietta Tsui, of Hong Kong's Galerie Ora-Ora, said this year's buyers were more cautious. "Less Putonghua was heard," she said.

First-time exhibitors were delighted by the sales, however.

Martin Travis, of London vintage jewellery dealer Symbolic & Chase, said he sold one major piece for six figures in US dollars to a Hong Kong client and some smaller pieces to local dealers.

Albemarle Gallery, also from London, sold seven pieces by Italian hyper-realist artist Luciano Ventrone - five of them on the last day.

Sotheby's contemporary Asian art autumn sale on Sunday brought in HK$117 million, including buyers' premium, down from HK$211.3 million in the spring.

Top 10 sales were characterised by "blue chip" mainland Chinese artists. While most sold to Asian private collectors, Zhang Xiaogang's oil painting Tiananmen No.1 (1993) was sold to a European private collector for more than HK$20 million, within the presale estimate.

Zeng Fanzhi's oil painting Untitled (2006) went to a private American collector for HK$3.38 million.

"We have seen more Western buyers this season compared to the spring sale," head of contemporary Asian art for Sotheby's, Evelyn Lin Chia-ju, said.

The Twentieth Century Chinese art sale achieved sales of HK$191.7 million, compared to HK$255 million in the spring. Fine Chinese paintings fetched HK$414 million, compared to the spring sale's HK$468 million.

Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art, on the other hand, totalled HK$121 million on Sunday, the highest total in this category.

Tiancheng International, which sold 37 of 87 lots offered at its modern and contemporary art autumn sale, disposed of its top lot, the Lohan's Eyebrow sculpture and painting of Lohan with Long Eyebrows by mainland artist Shao Fan to an international private buyer for HK$1.5 million.

Sotheby's autumn auction continues today.