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Asian Buyers Splurge $65.5 Million in London Art Auctions

A close-up view of an 18th-century Qianlong blue and copper-red
A close-up view of an 18th-century Qianlong blue and copper-red "dragon" porcelain moonflask. It was sold by Bonhams in its Nov. 7 Asian-art auction in London. Source: Bonhams via Bloomberg.

Nov. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Asian buyers battling for rare Chinese artworks splurged $65.5 million in three days of auctions in London.

The sales at the U.K. capital’s main auction houses were topped by an 18th-century vase that sold for 3.1 million pounds ($4.97 million), more than 10 times its estimate. Elsewhere, a $12 million Chinese bronze food vessel was reserved among the dealer shows for the U.K. capital’s Asian Art Week event.

The Sotheby’s, Christie’s International and Bonhams auctions raised a total of 40.9 million pounds with fees, according to figures compiled by Bloomberg News, even as more than a third of the material was rejected at all three houses.

“The selectivity is getting even more extreme,” the London-based dealer Roger Keverne said in an interview. “The market has sorted itself out. The spare money in China is chasing the very best.”

The Yongzheng-period yellow-and-green porcelain vase was sold by an unidentified European collector at Christie’s on Nov. 5. Estimated at 200,000 pounds to 300,000 pounds, it was similar to another example in the Palace Museum, Beijing, and had been in the same private collection since 1961. It was bought by an Asian dealer, Christie’s said.

Dragon Moonflask

An 18th-century Qianlong blue and copper-red “dragon” porcelain moonflask sold at Bonhams for 1.5 million pounds, beating an estimate of 500,000 pounds to 800,000 pounds.

Such Imperial-quality Chinese pieces are in increasingly short supply after sellers cashed in on a booming market in 2010 and early 2011. A similar series of London auctions in May 2011 took 58 million pounds with fees. This month’s auctions had been estimated to raise a combined figure of as much as 31.7 million pounds, based on hammer prices, from more than 1,100 lots.

Smaller selections of trophy pieces now attract even more intense competition from the Asian art traders and agents who travel to Western sales, attracted by long-standing provenances that guarantee authenticity, dealers said.

Asian Art in London, now in its 16th year, also included more than 50 selling exhibitions at commercial galleries.

Mayfair-based Eskenazi Ltd. was showing a 3,000 year-old food vessel that had been included in the 2012 Royal Academy of Arts exhibition “Bronze.” The elaborate two-handled “gui” was distinguished by being signed. Other examples bearing the same name of Bo Ju are in museums.

The $12 million piece was reserved, with confirmation of the sale still awaited at the end of the week.

Bronze Buddha

Last month, the mainland-based property developer Zhen Huaxing paid a record $30.5 million for a bronze Buddha at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, museum-quality western objects from earlier periods struggle to keep up with the soaring values of more fashionable contemporary art.

Christie’s put an estimate of 500,000 euros ($668,000) to 800,000 euros on a pair of 15th-century alabaster mourners from the tomb of the Duc de Berry, brother of Charles V, King of France, at an auction in Paris on Nov. 8.

Owned by the same family since 1807, the sculptures, by Etienne Bobillet and Paul Mosselmann, were part of a series of expressive figures of mourners that were carved for French royal mausoleums in the late medieval period. The Duc de Berry’s tomb in Bourges was vandalized during the French Revolution. Two other figures from the same monument are now in the Louvre.

On the day, five telephone bidders pushed the price of these unique medieval sculptures up to 4 million euros.

Though an impressive performance against estimate, the result is equivalent to the $5 million to $7 million valuation that Christie’s has given to the 1996 Louise Bourgeois bronze sculpture, “Spider IV,” from an edition of six, in its $500-million contemporary art sale in New York on Nov. 12.

“These days rich people want to buy works by high-profile big-name artists,” Philip Hoffman, chief executive of the London-based Fine Art Fund, said in an interview. “It’s not an art historical decision. They’re after brands.”

Muse highlights include Mark Beech on music, Richard Vines on food, Jason Harper on cars, Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.

To contact the writer on the story: Scott Reyburn in London at sreyburn@hotmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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