Auction house gives up on HK$28 million painting that was thrown out by hotel cleaners

Painting is thought to have been mistaken as rubbish shortly after it went under hammer

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 April, 2014, 4:37am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 2:38pm

An auction house that sold a Chinese painting for over HK$28 million this week - only for it to apparently end up in a landfill - has decided not to pursue the matter, police say.

Poly Auction Hong Kong told officers yesterday that their help was no longer needed, a day after it reported the artwork missing.

"[It] asked the police to withdraw the case saying it did not need assistance," a police spokesman said. The case, first classified as "theft", is now being treated as "lost property".

At the centre of the apparent blunder is Snowy Mountain by Cui Ruzhuo, a 2012 ink wash painting that went under the hammer for HK$28.75 million.

The piece, measuring 1.8 metres by 3.8 metres, fetched the second-highest price among 22 of Cui's works auctioned at Grand Hyatt Hong Kong in Wan Chai on Sunday and Monday.

Surveillance videos showed no sign of foul play, police said.

"The footage showed four workers removed the framed painting from the wall, packed the artwork and left it on the floor inside the ballroom," said a police source.

But workers did not pick up the painting when collecting other sold items. "At night, a security guard was seen kicking the packaged artwork over to a pile of rubbish," the source said.

Cleaners then moved in on Tuesday morning. The alarm was not raised until an employee of the auction house carried out stocktaking the same day.

It was understood that the rubbish truck serving the area would dump all the waste it collected along its scheduled route at a refuse transfer station near Tuen Mun, where everything would be compacted before being sent to a landfill.

"It sounds a bit unprofessional," said a veteran practitioner in the auction business.

"Usually, auction house employees should take all the items, sold or unsold, back to the warehouse or the company. No item should be left in the auction venue overnight."

Insurance-sector legislator Chan Kin-por said the company should have taken out insurance that covered "all risks".

The insurer would probably conduct an investigation to determine the extent of responsibility Poly Auction should bear, said Paul Law Siu-hung, of the International Professional Insurance Consulting Association.

"Telling the police they do not want to pursue the case is one thing. The insurer still needs to see if the loss was due to a breach of guidelines or procedures."

It was likely that both the seller and buyer could claim damages from Poly Auction, lawyer Daniel Wong Kwok-tung said.

The hotel denied its cleaners had dumped the artwork. "It is the auction houses or third-party exhibitors that handle the installation and dismantling of their own exhibitions, whether by themselves or hiring a contractor. The hotel is not responsible for the security of the exhibits."

Poly Auction could not be reached for comment yesterday.