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China Buying Spree, Record Painting Boost $54.9 Million Sale

Chinese Imperial Vase
An 18th-century Chinese imperial vase was the planned highlight of the Meiyintang collection of 80 works. It was estimated at more than $23 million and sold privately after the Hong Kong auction. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

A painting by Zhang Xiaogang set an auction record for a work by a contemporary Chinese artist last night as Asian buyers competed at a HK$427.2 million ($54.9 million) sale by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.

Zhang’s triptych “Forever Lasting Love” fetched HK$79 million with fees, more than double a hammer-price estimate of as much as HK$30 million, with the anonymous winning bid taken by telephone from Miety Heiden of Sotheby’s, New York. It was the top lot of 105 offered by Guy Ullens, founder of Beijing’s largest private art museum, with a $16.7 million total estimate.

“Prices of Chinese artists will continue to rise,” Gu Zhenqing, 47, who has been buying contemporary works for 10 years, said in an interview at the sale. “I’m confident that the price of a work by a Chinese artist will exceed the 100 million yuan ($15.3 million) mark this year. That could be Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi or someone else.”

The sale is part of a 3,600-lot series, Hong Kong’s first major auction of the year, with a presale estimate of HK$2.4 billion, said New York-based Sotheby’s, the world’s biggest publicly traded auction company. The event, starting with a weekend wine sale that raised HK$136.5 million over three days, will show whether rising wealth in China will continue to drive an increase in demand and prices.

Three more artist records were set in the first hour of the Ullens event: for Zhang Peili, Wang Guangyi and Geng Jianyi, with prices of as much as $3 million.

Record Outlook

“It’s difficult to get quality art in the market and the Ullens collection comprises important pieces,” said Dong Keming, 44, a Beijing-based art dealer. “Whenever there’s a good work, there is likely to be record.”

Ullens sold 18 works from his collection through Chinese auction house Poly International Auction Co. in 2009 for $22.2 million, including a classical 12th-century ink scroll painted by the Northern Song Dynasty’s Huizong Emperor, “Rare Birds Painted From Life,” which fetched 55.1 million yuan.

The Belgian collector opened his Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in 2007 in the Dashanzi art district of Beijing, known as “798” after a former electronics factory on the site.

“This is a very special collection,” said Bruce Merivale-Austin, who kept bidding for works and losing to phone buyers. “Prices are way above estimates. It has a provenance about it you can’t get from a normal auction.” He finally managed to win a gunpowder-on-paper work by Cai Guo Qiang for HK$1.2 million.

Once in Lifetime

The quality of the Ullens works meant there are few comparable pieces and it was “a once in a lifetime chance,” Karen Smith, an art historian, said before the sale.

“Art prices are still within a rational range,” said Ge Yaping, 42, a Chinese bidder from Nanjing, who bought a piece by Zhang Xiaogang. “Prices will continue to trend upward because of China’s economy.”

China overtook the U.S. as the world’s biggest auction market for fine art in 2010, according to research company Artprice, benefiting from the support of its government.

Sotheby’s Chinese contemporary art sales are followed by Modern and Contemporary Asian Art, traditional Chinese paintings, antiques, jewelry, watches and ceramics through April 8. The highlights are two private European collections: the Ullens sale, and one of ceramics, including an 18th-century Qing vase estimated at more than $23 million, on April 7.

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