CHINESE CONTEMPORARY art may still be all the rage on the international auction market, but a serene and rare collection of Buddha bronzes is likely to steal some of that limelight at Sotheby's autumn sales this week. With pre-auction exhibitions from this Wednesday to Sunday and the sales from Friday to next Monday at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, the event will showcase about 1,340 lots that are expected to fetch about HK$980 million. Items going under the hammer include Chinese masterpieces and contemporary paintings, Ming ceramics, jewellery and timepieces. But the Speelman Collection of Important Early Ming Buddhist Bronzes, known for its beauty and rarity, will be the main attraction for most collectors - and those who simply want to look. It was put together during the past 30 to 40 years by Jules Speelman, a leading dealer in London, and his late father, Alfred. Both were enchanted by the quality of the casting and gilding of the Buddha figures. 'My husband and I saw that collection 15 years ago in London with Jules Speelman and his father,' says Tuyet Nguyet, a Buddhist bronze expert and collector. 'I was captivated by the quality of the gilt bronze. At that time, I didn't have a chance to see the big Buddha - the biggest one in this collection that's expected to fetch HK$80 million.' Nguyet, founder of the 37-year-old Arts of Asia magazine, is referring to the collection's centrepiece: the gilt-bronze figure of Shakyamuni Buddha from the Yongle period (1403-1424) that stands 72.5cm high. 'It's the most beautiful and rarest of the rarest,' she says. 'I saw a smaller version at the British Museum about 30 years ago, but this is more beautiful and majestic. The quality of the gilding is so evenly spread and the piece is in excellent condition. 'The Buddha is backed by a fine aureole and is sitting on an impressive base. The image of Lord Buddha alone isn't so significant, but the fact it's so large and has an inscribed imperial Yongle mark, the original aureole and base makes it extraordinary. The wonderful pattern of lotus scrolls and flaming border all together make this piece very, very rare.' Nicolas Chow, the head of Sotheby's Chinese ceramics and works of art department, says that apart from the collection in Lhasa's Potala Museum, the 14-piece Speelman collection of Early Ming Buddhist Bronzes is the most important in the world. 'It has a very wide iconographic range - maybe half the pieces are unique, with no similar example even in the Potala Museum,' he says. 'Also, the hallmark of the Speelman collection is its spotless condition.' Another showpiece is a 19cm gilt-bronze standing figure of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. Chow says it's the finest piece of the collection in terms of casting. It's expected to fetch up to HK$10 million. 'When Speelman bought it, many years ago, he thought it was pure gold because it's so thick. The casting is extremely fine.' Nguyet says it's rare to have a standing Lord Buddha like the Maitreya: 'Also if you take a good look at the robe - last time at the preview I spent an hour just looking at it - the quality of workmanship is extraordinary. The drapery of the robe is unique. You don't normally see that kind of drapery in the seated Buddhas. The expression of the face with a golden glow on it is simply beautiful. The eyes are so delicate. I also like the serenity of the piece. Again, it's in very good condition.' Chow says there's now a market for this particular genre, which used to be considered esoteric: 'I think at the time when Speelman was collecting them, there was very little interest and understanding.' Nguyet says that China's economic boom and greater religious freedom is boosting the market. 'Western collectors may not be willing to pay such high prices for these bronzes, but the religiously minded rich will be eyeing these beautiful pieces.' Western interest especially from America, however, will continue to dominate the Contemporary Chinese art market. Zhang Xiaogang - whose Amnesia and Memory: Man (2003) and three-piece Bloodline Series: Mother No5, Baby No28, Father No20 (1997) sold for US$884,000 and US$688,000, respectively, at last week's Sotheby's New York auction - is expected to perform well here this week, with five of his pieces going under the hammer. Head of Chinese Contemporary Art Evelyn Lin says the series of works shows his maturing artistry during the past two decades. The estimate for His Big Family Series: No15, an auction highlight, is up to HK$12 million. 'I think the reason he's so popular and important has something to do with the image and the concept of his paintings,' Lin says. 'His images are of old photos during the Cultural Revolution. 'He talks about the relationship within a family: parents with the kid or brother with his sister. His images are always very cool - they look as if they have nothing to do with each other. He's always talking about relationship, set during the Cultural Revolution. Collectors are looking for this kind of image.' Also expected to do well are auction regulars Zhao Wuji and Wang Guangyi, as well as younger artists such as Gao Yu. In the modern art category, the piece to look out for is first-generation Taiwanese artist Chen Chengbo's Danshui, which is expected to sell for up to HK$20 million. 'Chen doesn't have too many pieces in the market,' Lin says. 'He's an important artist in Taiwan and more for the Taiwanese market. It's very rare. It's in modern style - not very contemporary.' Also from Taiwan is sculptor Zhu Ming, who has a large bronze statute from his taichi series on the market. The showpiece is expected to fetch above its HK$6 million estimate.