Hong Kong’s first set of spring auction results show the appetite for art remains strong despite fears of a drop in demand from Chinese buyers. Both Sotheby’s and Poly Auction Hong Kong sold more than they did in the corresponding sales a year ago.

Sotheby’s sales from April 2 to April 6 of wine, jewellery, watches and art fetched a total of HK$3.1 billion, in line with the auction house’s pre-sale estimates and 17 per cent more than its sales in April 2015. Poly Auction Hong Kong sold lots worth HK$1.3 billion, around 14 per cent more than last year’s sale total. Both figures include buyers’ premiums.

Auctioneers were particularly thrilled by the reception for big-ticket items such as Zhang Daqian’s hanging scroll Peach Blossom Spring. The 1982 work by the late Chinese master was sold by Sotheby’s on April 5 to Shanghai’s Long Museum for HK$271 million, an auction record for the artist. At over four times the pre-sale upper estimate of HK$65 million, the final price accounted for 48 per cent of the total proceeds from Sotheby’s “Fine Chinese Paintings” sale, which featured 105 lots.

Sotheby’s sets two new records with Chinese painting and rare diamond in Hong Kong auction

Poly, the local subsidiary of China’s largest auction house, set a new record for Chinese modern and contemporary oil paintings when it sold Wu Guanzhong’s The Zhou Village for HK$236 million on April 4. That price represented 59 per cent of the total of HK$400 million raised from its “Chinese and Asian Modern and Contemporary Art” sale, which had 146 lots.

Poly also set a record for jadeite pendants when it sold one for HK$46.5 million.

Other eye-catching sales at Sotheby’s included a blue diamond which sold for HK$248.29 million and an imperial seal of Qing dynasty Emperor Kangxi, which fetched HK$81 million.

Beyond the top highlights, however, the results showed a steady rather than exuberant market but one which nonetheless belied the headline-grabbing findings of the latest TEFAF art market report, which showed the greater China’s art market contracted by 23 per cent in 2015.

At Sotheby’s, Chinese antiques and Chinese paintings were among the best performers, with sell-through rates generally exceeding 90 per cent.

Among the most successful sales was that of the Pilkington Collection of antique Chinese porcelain, which attracted heavy bidding from Japan and China. Of around 100 lots that came under the hammer, only two did not find buyers, and the final tally of HK$502.8 million was roughly double the pre-sale estimate.

They had everything in the sale, some very good pieces and some mediocre pieces. Still, more or less everything went. It seems that people want anything but having money on their hands
James Lally

Veteran antiques dealer James Lally, from New York, said the Pilkington sale was a sign that the auction halls had become like “casinos” again. Bids were not as frantic as 2011 levels, he said, but professional dealers like himself were blocked out by indiscriminate bidding by amateur collectors. “They had everything in the sale, some very good pieces and some mediocre pieces. Still, more or less everything went. It seems that people want anything but having money on their hands,” he said.

Elsewhere, the mood was calmer. The “Modern & Contemporary Asian Art” evening sale on April 3, a bellwether for one of the fastest-growing segment of the art market in recent years, sold 86.9 per cent of the lots on offer, comparable to last year’s 84 per cent. Demand for Southeast Asian art may have softened, however, judging by the 65.4 per cent sell-through rate at the April 4 “Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art” sale. The same sale last year saw over 80 per cent of lots sold.

Mok Kim-chuan, head of Southeast Asian Art at Sotheby’s, said Indonesia’s current economic woes had hurt demand, though overall sales remained resilient. “We are particularly pleased to see more successful bids coming from Taiwan and Hong Kong this season, which show that the appeal of Southeast Asian art is spreading,” he said.

Top lots still managed to fetch high prices, such as Ali Sadikin Pada Masa Perang Kemerdekaan by Indonesian artist Hendra Gunawan. It sold for HK$33.2 million, a record for the artist. Mok said the dearth of new stars emerging from the region meant that demand had softened since 2006-08, when contemporary Southeast Asian works caught the world’s attention. He expects to see the market improve in the next 12-18 months.

The next major test of the auction market in Hong Kong will come in late May and early June, when Christie’s and Bonhams have major sales.