Chinese Buying Frenzy Helps Sotheby’s to $540 Mln Record

A growing number of collectors from China and elsewhere in Asia helped Sotheby’s raise HK$4.2 billion ($540 million), which it said was a record for a series of auctions held in Hong Kong.

The five-day marathon’s record-breaking sales, which concluded last night, included a $30.8 million white diamond, a $23.3 million painting by Zeng Fanzhi and a $30.5 million bronze Buddha.

“We haven’t seen the room so full or so positive or so buoyant for a while,” said London-based dealer Daniel Eskenazi.

Eskenazi, who was outbid on a Chenghua-era “Palace” Bowl that sold for $18.2 million, said more mainland buyers show up each season, and now that China’s new political leadership is established, they feel more comfortable buying.

Property developer Zheng Huaxing bought the Buddha, a Yongle Gilt-Bronze seated figure, setting a record for a Chinese sculpture at auction. After the winning bid, Zheng stood up, pressed his hands together in prayer and bowed three times to the saleroom. The Palace bowl also went to a property developer whose dealer, Hong Kong-based William Chak, bid on his behalf.

“He wanted this piece desperately,” said Chak. “He was so anxious he didn’t sleep at all last night.”

Chak said his client, who is building a private museum in Hebei province outside Beijing, typifies the new breed of collectors: conspicuous, deep pocketed and determined.

New Wealth

“The new wealth in China is different,” Chak said. “They don’t just want to collect and enjoy, they want to be No. 1.”

A rare Tang dynasty (618-907) dry lacquer head of Buddha from the 90-year-old Japanese collector Sakamoto Goro sold for $5.2 million, a record for a Tang Buddhist sculpture.

China can now claim to have unseated Japan after the Zeng painting fetched the most for an Asian contemporary artist at auction, beating a record set by Takashi Murakami sculpture that sold for US$15.1 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2008.

Zeng’s 2001 oil painting “The Last Supper” is from Switzerland-based Belgian couple Myriam and Guy Ullens de Schooten, who are selling off parts of what’s considered one of the best private collections of contemporary Chinese art.

The diamond was the largest and most expensive D-color flawless type IIA at auction. Artist records included HK$85.2 million for a triptych by the Chinese abstract painter Zao Wou-ki and HK$3.64 million for “Red Shadow” by Indonesian painter Rudi Mantofani. A work by Juan Luna sold for HK$25.88 million, a Philippine auction record, nearly five times its high estimate of HK$5.5 million.

(Frederik Balfour is a reporter-at-large for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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