Emperor’s Seal, Pink Diamond Lead $210 Million Hong Kong Sale

Fu Baoshi Work
Fu Baoshi's "Court Ladies'' depicting a Tang dynasty woman and her maid. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

A jade seal of China’s 18th century Qianlong emperor is one of the star attractions at Sotheby’s 3,200-lot Hong Kong auction that may raise HK$1.6 billion ($210 million) in a test of Chinese demand for art.

The milky-white block of jade, inscribed “ruler who believes in heaven,” has carved dragons on top. It has a high estimate of HK$30 million. The seven-day marathon also includes cases of Chateau Lafite Rothschild; a 6.4 carat pink diamond; antiques; jewelry and paintings by masters including Chinese abstract painter Zao Wou-ki, New York-based Sotheby’s said.

The sale will show whether rising wealth in China will continue to drive an increase in prices. Sotheby’s said the sale has 800 more lots than its April auction in the city, which took a record HK$2 billion and revived prices in most categories to pre-credit-crisis levels.

“The estimate for the fall auction is the highest in our 37-year history of auctions in Asia,” Kevin Ching, Sotheby’s chief executive officer for Asia, said in a telephone interview. “I’m reasonably confident we’ll do as well or better than our spring sale.”

Rare wines are auctioned first, at the weekend, followed by Modern and Contemporary Asian Art, traditional Chinese paintings and ceramics, antiques, jewelry and watches through Oct. 8.

The wine sales, including lots from the cellars of Marcus D. Hiles and SK Networks, the trading arm of one of South Korea’s largest conglomerates, are expected to be dominated by Asian appetite for labels such as Lafite and Chateau Petrus. Chinese buying may help Hong Kong become the world’s biggest wine auction market this year after its sales outperformed New York in the first half.

2005 Romanee-Conti

Top lots include a case of Romanee-Conti 2005 estimated to sell for as much as HK$1.17 million and 20 cases of Lafite 2000 expected to fetch as much as HK$234,000 each.

The art lots begin on Oct. 4 with the modern and contemporary Southeast Asian paintings, dominated by Indonesian works. Since Indonesian buyers came in force to push up prices at Sotheby’s last Hong Kong sale in April, the Jakarta stock exchange has risen another 23 percent, boosting the wealth of the nation’s collectors.

Top lot among the modern offerings is S. Sudjojono’s 1956 work “A New Dawn,” with a high estimate of HK$2.5 million. Leading the contemporary estimates is a new Nyoman Masriadi work “Sok Ngirit (Pretending to be Prudent),” depicting a line of people outside a telephone box. Its upper estimate is HK$2.2 million.

Frenzied Bidding

Later the same day, bidding is expected to intensify with works by abstract artist Zao Wou-ki leading the Chinese 20th-century art session. Seventeen works by China-born Zao, 89, offered by rival Christie’s International in Hong Kong in May fetched a total of HK$332.3 million in frenzied bidding.

Sotheby’s is offering two of the Paris-based artist’s works. The first, “18-10-60,” a crimson painting from 1960, has a top estimate of HK$18 million. The second, with a high estimate of HK$15 million, is “5.3.71-28.11.74,” from more than a decade later after the death of his partner in 1972.

In the contemporary sessions, works by Chinese artists including Zhang Xiaogang, Yu Youhan, Ding Yi, Li Songsong and Wang Du will be offered, led by a 1992 Zhang painting that has a high estimate of HK$23 million.

Sex and Violence

Sotheby’s is also staging “The Voyeur,” a special section on the themes of sex, violence and the grotesque in contemporary Asian art, with works from Japan, South Korea and China.

Later in the week, the focus switches to the traditional Chinese paintings by masters such as Wu Guanzhong and Fu Baoshi, with high estimates at HK$7 million apiece, and the ceramics and antiques that were the mainstay of the Hong Kong auctions when prices of contemporary art collapsed during the recession.

The Oct. 7-8 sessions on ceramics and works of art include the jade seal, as well as two floral-medallion vases from the imperial workshops in the Qianlong period.

“This season is the largest sale ever in our category both in terms of the sheer number and value of masterpieces of Chinese art that will be offered,” Nicolas Chow, Sotheby’s deputy chairman, said in a statement on the company’s website.

Sotheby’s, the world’s biggest publicly traded auction company, sold a record HK$2 billion of antiques and art in Hong Kong in its five-day sale of 2,400 items in April, when prices of the top lots recovered to pre-credit-crisis levels. The auction house had estimated the spring sale would tally HK$1.3 billion.

Mainland Demand

Almost 40 percent of the April total came from antiques, led by bidding from mainland Chinese collectors for imperial pieces and ink paintings by deceased masters such as Fu Baoshi. Interest in Chinese contemporary art also recovered, pushing prices to 2-year highs.

The equivalent sale the previous year took HK$691 million. Prices of the top Chinese contemporary artworks fell 70 percent during the crisis from May 2008, when Zeng Fanzhi’s painting of Red Guards fetched HK$75.4 million.

Hong Kong’s $500 million-a-year art auction market was dominated in 2009 by mainland Chinese, who accounted for 40 percent of sales.

Potential buyers who aren’t represented at this month’s sale at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre can bid via Sotheby’s online bidding system.

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