BloombergAn imperial pearl necklace is the star item in a Hong Kong auction that may raise HK$1.3 billion ($167 million). Chinese investors are buying art because of worries that prices of property and stocks have risen too much.
The 18th-century necklace, which Sotheby’s says might have belonged to the Emperor Yongzheng (reign: 1722-1735), is one of 2,400 lots of wine, art and gems on sale starting April 3. At last year’s equivalent auction, the company tallied HK$691 million, less than half the HK$1.77 billion in 2008.
Shanghai-listed stocks now trading at 25 times earnings and China’s biggest property-price jump in two years are pushing some mainlanders to park money in other assets, said collector and My Humble Art Space Chief Executive Michael Wang.
“In China, there’s now a lot of money with few places to go,” Wang said in a telephone interview. “Rare antiques and art are now appreciated for their aesthetics and investment value.”
The 2008-2009 global financial crisis marked the rise of mainland Chinese collectors as dominant buyers at Hong Kong’s $500 million-a-year art-auction market as they wrested the priciest items in almost every major category from their U.S. rivals. Last year, mainland Chinese accounted for 40 percent of sales by value, Sotheby’s biggest client group.
Typifying the big-spending Chinese is Shanghai investing tycoon Liu Yiqian, who paid a record HK$85.8 million for a Qing Dynasty imperial throne at Sotheby’s October auction in Hong Kong. His wife, Wang Wei, also stood out for her bidding on contemporary paintings by Chinese artists such as Liu Ye.
Asked if Liu plans to make big purchases at the Sotheby’s sale, their art adviser, Chen Lianyong, said: “If there are good items, why not? What’s spent on art is small money.”
Chen wouldn’t say which lots Liu and Wang might buy.
Humble House’s Wang says price estimates appeared higher, with some items auctioned just a few years ago. An imperial white-jade seal of Emperor Qianlong’s era that Sotheby’s expects to fetch more than HK$50 million at this auction was sold by the company at its Fall 2007 Hong Kong sale for HK$47 million, said Nicolas Chow, Sotheby’s head of Chinese ceramics and works of art.
“That some items were so recently sold isn’t a comment on their quality,” Chow said in a phone interview. “Some mainland collectors’ attention span is quite short; after they had bought something and showed it around to their friends, they might think, ‘Maybe it’s time to buy this, this or that.’”
Kevin Ching, Sotheby’s Hong Kong-based Asia chief executive, said price estimates at this auction have stayed the same as previous sales for like items.
Mainlanders, including Liu, are also fighting for the best gems at auction, according to Sotheby’s and rival Christie’s International. In December, Liu bid for and lost a pink diamond at Christie’s Hong Kong sale that sold for HK$83.5 million.
At Sotheby’s coming auction, a 5.16-carat internally flawless fancy-vivid blue diamond from the De Beers Millennium Collection will be offered with a high estimate of HK$46 million. Internally flawless is the second-highest grading for diamonds and fancy-vivid is the top color rating for hued ones.
Prices of top-end Chinese contemporary-art, which have fallen more than 70 percent since their peak in early 2008, are continuing their climb from the bottom, according to Wang. Older paintings by established or deceased Asian masters would still fetch the best prices, as they did last year, he said.
At Sotheby’s October auction, an oil-on-board painting, “Lotus et Poissons Rouges” (“Lotus and Red Fish”) by deceased Chinese master Sanyu, fetched HK$36.5 million. An oil- on-canvas work, “7.4.61,” by Chinese abstract artist Zao Wou- ki (born 1921) made HK$15.8 million, against a presale top estimate of HK$12 million. The top Chinese contemporary art lot, a Zhang Xiaogang painting, barely reached $1 million.
Among the Asian paintings highlighted at this auction are Zao’s “10-3-78” that’s expected to reach HK$10 million, a work by Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) with a top estimate of HK$4.5 million and French-trained master Wu Guanzhong’s ink-on-paper rendition of Hong Kong’s urban landscape, “Labyrinth,” that may sell for as much as HK$2 million, according to Sotheby’s.
“We think the mood to buy has returned,” said Ching. “We expect good results at this auction.”
Hong Kong hosts biannual auctions by Sotheby’s and Christie’s that are considered barometers of industry sentiment. Christie’s starts its Hong Kong fall sale in late May.
China was one of the few regions to register increased art sales during the financial crisis. Auction houses and dealers in mainland China and Hong Kong sold 4.2 billion euros ($5.6 billion) of art in 2009, 12 percent more than in 2008, said a report published on March 1 by the Netherlands-based European Fine Art Foundation. China’s share of world art-market sales grew to 14 percent in 2009, said the report.
To contact the writer on the story: Le-Min Lim in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org