A CHARITY AUCTION in the Lee Gardens basement atrium last week lured Hong Kong's socialites in their finery, eager to bid for some of the top brand names on offer. But Sotheby's, which arranged the event, hopes it raised more than the HK$34,000 brought in for Orbis. The auction house was aiming to raise the profile of public auctions and get Hong Kong people accustomed to bidding. 'Bidding Wars' was a sugar-coated event appropriately accompanied by a dessert buffet and free of heated debate about cultural relics or armed guards discreetly keeping an eye on multi-million dollar works of art. Armed with bright orange bidding paddles, which doubled as invites, collectors-in-training supplemented the HK$700-HK$2,000 in pocket money they were given at the door with generous amounts of their own cash. On offer were 20 lots, donated by the luxury brands at the Lee Gardens, including such rare finds as a pair of limited edition Bikkembergs 3-dimension jeans moulded to fit the body of Italian footballer Gianluca Cordella, a Tiffany charm bracelet and a platinum-finish Cartier paperweight. The Mercedes-Benz model car with a lucky number 88, of which only 1,000 produced worldwide, brought in an impressive HK$12,000 in heated bidding, quadrupling the HK$3,000 suggested retail price. It was all good fun, but Sotheby's is hoping the message hit home. 'We probably witnessed all the possible scenarios that would occur in an international sale room,' says Peter Cheung, Sotheby's deputy director of public relations and special events for China and Southeast Asia. 'People feel intimidated and are fearful of walking into a sale room. But auctions are open to the public, even if you are not registered as a buyer.' Quek Chin Yeow, Sotheby's only Asian auctioneer and head of its jewellery department in Hong Kong, led the crowd through a number of possible scenarios, including an absentee bid, telephone bids and the concept of lots without reserve, where no minimum figure is set. In the case of two simultaneous bids made after the hammer had fallen, he used auctioneer's discretion to reopen the bidding. Mr Cheung believes that Hong Kong people harbour stereotypes about auctions, which deter them from attending. 'In London and New York the public is more accustomed to these things,' he said. 'At our Bond Street headquarters in London, if there are sale goods on exhibition the public walk in off the street and take a look. In Hong Kong, because we use hotels as venues for our sales, which are only held twice a year here, people tend to think that they are not public affairs.' 'Before a sale, there is an exhibition period when the doors are open to the public without a fee. They can view the property firsthand. They can try on the jewellery and the watches, or examine the ceramics. It is not like a museum, where very often the works are fenced off.' Having specialists on hand to answer questions during auction previews is enough to kick-start any latent collecting streak, Mr Cheung believes. 'In order to ignite a passion for collecting it is good to listen to the experts talk about their specialities,' he said. 'Auctioneers are colourful people, too. It is a very lively process and we need to break down the inaccessible stereotypes.' Sotheby's launched its Young Collectors Council in Hong Kong in 1999, after a good response in New York and London, in an effort to educate the next generation of collectors. The first Hong Kong event focused on jadeite, which is popular among the older generation and is thought to have mystical powers in Chinese philosophy. 'We wanted to show young people that jadeite can also be contemporary,' said Mr Cheung, who is chairman of the council. 'We showcased some contemporary designs by jewellery designer Michelle Ong Cheung, coupled with a contemporary fashion show by Bonnie Chang. 'There was a spillover of interest at the Sotheby's jewellery sales which followed. Before the event, a lot of people had thought auctions and jadeite were something only their parents and grandparents were interested in.' The second event was a panel discussion on contemporary Chinese painting, attended by San Francisco-based contemporary artist Li Hua Yee, which attempted to illustrate to the younger generation that there is more to Chinese painting than landscapes and calligraphy. The event was followed by one focusing on watches last October, which succeeded in raising interest for the watch auction held a week later. According to Mr Cheung, many young people in Hong Kong have had some overseas exposure and return here with a new appreciation for Chinese works of art. 'But it is hard to appreciate an ancient calligraphy scroll, for example, if you don't know too much about it and can't read it or understand the meaning of the poetry. That is what is good about having specialists on hand to tell you about the artist, the history, the provenance. That knowledge is what ignites a passion for collecting.' Mr Cheung says there is a lot of interest among younger generations in contemporary Chinese painting. Classical paintings and Imperial porcelain are also gaining in popularity, helped by the strong market for Chinese art at present. He hopes more events such as the charity auction and Young Collector's Council initiatives will help raise a new generation of Hong Kong collectors and demystify the auction process. Sotheby's is auctioning jadeite, jewellery and important watches at the Island Shangri-La this week. The Asia Week sales of Chinese paintings, ceramics and works of art will be held later in the month. Christie's spring auctions, also late this month, include Chinese lacquerware, ceramics, paintings, watches, jadeite and jewellery. All works may be viewed by the public during exhibition days beforehand.