WHEN THE TERRORIST attacks in the United States caused auction house Christie's to postpone its September 15 autumn New York sale by a month, there was concern the art market may have fallen flat. It was hard to predict how the buyers would react after the events of September 11 stopped the world in its tracks and rocked its stock markets. Would investors see art and antiques as a safe haven for investments, or would they simply not be in the mood to part with their money? Not since the 1991 Gulf War has the art market been tested as it is at the moment. The months of September and October are usually exciting in the art world. Auction houses tour cities with their collections and woo clients, galleries buzz with people flocking to new shows, and private dealers work their contacts, bargain-hunting before they pitch to clients. When the New York bidding ended on October 15 on items from the Faulk Collection of important Chinese ceramics, auctioneers breathed a sigh of relief. Lot 134, a rare fine, blue and white conical bowl, sold for US$1.16 million (HK$9 million) against a pre-sale estimate of US$300,000 to US$500,000. Lot 132, an early Ming-dynasty white-glazed bowl, made US$110,500, almost twice the pre-sale estimate of US$60,000. If anything, last week's New York auction results are an indication the art market is likely to hold its ground, with support from serious collectors. But nothing will be oversold, either. 'As they [Asian bidders] did not get to view the lots personally, there was a ceiling to what they were willing to pay,' says Anthony Lin, director of Christie's Hong Kong, who was at the New York sale. Next week, Hong Kong's appetite for art will be tested too, as Sotheby's and Christie's hold their autumn sales of Chinese art, ceramics and jewellery. There is plenty of pre-sale hype and activity - press previews of highlights, modelling sessions, private client viewing - but the tone is still 'cautious', according to Lin. 'We have to look at the art market globally, because clients from the US and Europe participate in the Asian sales,' he adds. 'But the majority of our clients are still from Hong Kong, Taiwan and some arefrom China, so the Hong Kong auctions may not perform in the same way as the New York auctions.' Lin adds there is a possibility that, in times of 'deteriorating sentiment', the art market is sometimes buoyed by people who believe art is a better investment refuge than alternatives such as the stock or property market. 'Initially, the first week after the terrorist attacks, everyone was in shock, everything just stopped,' Lin continues. 'But since then, a lot of people are trying to get on with their lives, and realising that the fundamentals are not that bad.' He recalls the worst time in the Asian art market, during the Asian financial crisis in 1998. 'During that time I'd say the reaction was even stronger, mainly due to the currency devaluations in Asia,' he says. But now things don't look as bad. 'At this point, some sellers are expressing concern, but our clientele are still interested, they are coming down to the viewings. If they really didn't want to buy at all, they wouldn't even be looking.' Henry Howard Sneyd, managing director of Sotheby's China/ Southeast Asia, and who first established auctions in Asia, is also cautiously optimistic. 'I have spoken to many dealers and the art markets have remained particularly strong since the September incident, with the serious-collector bracket holding up surprisingly well. Some lots won't move, but we will see good prices,' he says, recalling how the art market was sluggish during the economic slump of 1991 to 1993. Mainland Chinese are becoming stronger players at sales and may help boost the local market, especially in areas of their interest such as Chinese paintings and ceramics. For the forthcoming auction, all eyes will be on two exceptional private collections of Chinese paintings - from noted film director Yon Fan in Hong Kong through Sotheby's, and collector Liu Liangnian from Taiwan through Christie's. The collections feature some of China's most established artists, such as Zhang Daqian, Qi Baishi and Chai Sian Kwan. For years, Liu Jijian, a dentist in Taipei, has kept his late father Liu Liangnian's collection of paintings in a bank vault. 'Every now and then I would go in and just admire them,' Liu says. 'Christie's approached me several times to consign my paintings with them. My wife and daughter are not very interested in paintings. I am close to retirement, so I thought maybe it's a good idea to sell instead of keeping everything rolled up inside a vault.' His father was a great art patron and a personal friend to many painters in the 1930s and 40s, particularly Zhang, one of China's most influential artists. Many paintings offered for sale are works of an extremely high standard, and have never been displayed before. 'Zhang was a close family friend - I thought of him as an uncle, we knew his children and grandchildren,' Liu says. 'My father supported all of Zhang's exhibitions by purchasing his works, and sometimes Zhang would present paintings to us as gifts.' Liu knew his father had a keen eye. In recent years he, too, paid attention to the auctions, poring through catalogues and seeing the immense market support for Zhang's works. 'My family were not serious collectors, we did it for pleasure,' he says. He began to realise his father had a much better eye than he thought when he noticed works similar to Zhang's in his collection were fetching high prices. 'Then I had a good idea of the value of my own collection.' This is the first time Liu is participating in an auction. Because of the close ties between Zhang and his family, Liu came into possession of several unique items. One is a Chinese qibao (dress), on which Zhang painted orchids. It was the artist's gift to Liu's mother. Another prized lot is a large landscape by Zhang, Clearing Mist After The Rain, done in a splashed ink and colour medium. It is one of the best examples of the master's aptitude in blending techniques from the East and West and is estimated to sell for HK$3 to HK$4 million. 'I am told that there is a buyer who is already very keen to purchase it,' Liu says. The art collector admits he did not realise there would be so much uncertainty in the world when he placed his collection for sale. 'I am certainly not in need of money,' he says. 'I have set a reasonable reserve on each of my paintings and wouldn't not sell them for less.' Jason Tse, head of ceramics of Sotheby's Hong Kong doesn't think the auctions will outperform New York, but he anticipates most lots will sell. 'We are setting a reasonable estimate,' he says. 'I think some of the gamblers will not be participating this time, but they don't make up the base of our clientele.' So far, no lots have been withdrawn from either auction houses for these sales. And auctioneers are keeping their fingers crossed. 'There is still very keen interest on the top end of the market and I very much hope this will carry over to Hong Kong,' Lin says. Autumn auction for Christie's of Chinese paintings, ceramics and jewellery takes place onOctober 29-31. For information on previews and catalogues call 2521 5396. Autumn auction for Sotheby's of Chinese paintings, ceramics, watches and jewellery takes place on October 28-30. For information on previews and catalogues call 2524 8121. 'Initially, the first week after the terrorist attacks, everyone was in shock, everything just stopped'