Earlier this month in New York, Christie’s held its biggest ever art auction, selling $745 million worth of contemporary and modern works by Western artists in one night. But at Christie’s Hong Kong spring sales, the bidding activity was far more muted.
Wine, contemporary Asian art, classical Chinese paintings, watches, jewelry and Chinese antiques were up for grabs at the five-day sales event, which ended on Wednesday with results that were far less spectacular than the exuberant buying in New York.
Christie’s generated 3.03 billion Hong Kong dollars (US$390 million) worth of collectibles in Hong Kong, less than the HK$3.2 billion it fetched at its spring sales in the city last year. Mainland Chinese buyers showed themselves to be restrained in their bidding, prompting dealers to speculate that this year’s sale lacked masterpiece items that would attract top dollars.
“There just wasn’t a lot that was on offer that was attractive for collectors to really spend,” said William Chak, a Hong Kong-based antiques dealer. “The estimates were quite high.”
On Wednesday, just 60% of the Chinese ceramics and works of art were sold – a category that has been particularly strong in recent years.
“It wasn’t as buoyant as it has been,” said Daniel Eskenazi, a London-based dealer of Chinese antiques. “Before, the mainland Chinese would buy everything. Now, there’s been a slowdown, and they’re a lot more selective.”
Throughout the week, several high-valued lots didn’t find buyers, including works by Chinese ink masters Qi Baishi, Wu Guanzhong and Fu Baoshi, all of whom have been auction favorites in recent years. “Going to School” by Qi and “Bamboos” by Wu – both valued at up to HK$15 million – were left on the block. The highest-selling Chinese modern ink painting was “Lake of Five Pavilions” by Zhang Daqian, which sold for HK$14.4 million, within its estimated range of HK$12 million to HK$15 million.
Still, some high-priced items did find buyers over the five days. “Potted Chrysanthemums” by Sanyu, a Chinese-born artist who lived in Paris, realized HK$46 million on Saturday night. The painting, almost a meter in height, features the titular flowers against a dark blue background.
During Christie’s jewelry sale on Tuesday, a pink diamond ring fetched HK$46 million, at the low end of the pre-sale estimated range of HK$45 million to HK$60 million. The next day, during a sale of Chinese antiques, a HK$46 million pair of 18th-century imperial peach-colored dishes went to an Asian dealer. Also that day, a gilt-bronze vase was sold by Hong Kong collectors Milton Man and Coobie Chui fetched HK$6.6 million, within its estimate of HK$5 to HK$7 million.
The sales events in Hong Kong have been a major source of growth for Christie’s, the world’s largest art auction house. In 2013, the firm sold US$938 million worth of collectibles at auction in Hong Kong, a rise of 33% from the previous year.
Christie’s says that the success of its 20th-century and modern art sales in New York are feeding interest in Western art among Asian collectors. Globally, buyers from Greater China – which comprises mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan – bought 22% of the company’s world-wide sales. The amount they spent was up 63%, according to the firm.
Earlier this month, Chinese buyers scooped up many of the masterpieces at auction, including “Water Lilies” by Claude Monet, which fetched US$27 million, and Alexander Calder’s “Flying Fish” mobile, which generated US$26 million.
Representatives for Christie’s did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
–Wei Gu contributed to this article.