Sotheby’s Aims to Raise HK$600 Million at Hong Kong Art Auction

An 8th-century tortoiseshell vanity box, said to be a gift from the Tang Dynasty palace to Japan’s Emperor Shomu, may fetch more than HK$40 million ($5 million) in Hong Kong at Asia’s first major art auction this year.

The octagonal box, measuring 35.6 centimeters across and embedded with mother-of-pearl and amber in flower shapes, is the highlight of Sotheby’s five-day sale of antiques, gems and paintings starting tomorrow. Sotheby’s said it expects the auction of 1,700 items to fetch more than HK$600 million. At the same sale last year, the company tallied HK$1.77 billion. Estimates don’t include buyer’s commission.

Sotheby’s has reduced estimates at this auction to reflect the slump in the global art market triggered by the latest round of a credit crisis that began in the fourth quarter, said Quek Chin Yeow, Sotheby’s Hong Kong-based Asia deputy chairman. There isn’t a widely used price index for Asian art; auction results in Hong Kong and large gallery transactions are the best indicators of where prices are headed.

“The market is still weak,” said Qu Liqun, a Shanghai- based antiques collector. “Most people prefer to wait and observe the market rather than buy, although they may make an exception with an item that’s truly remarkable.”

Qu said some items at the sale are rare and he plans to fly to Hong Kong to bid for them. Qu, with a budget of about 2 million yuan per item, wouldn’t identify the lots he wants.

Another highlight of the Chinese ceramics sale is a blue- and-white imperial stembowl with Tibetan inscription, from the era of Emperor Xuande (reign: 1426-1435), that Sotheby’s expects to fetch more than HK$20 million.

Chinese Bronzes

The ceramics auction will be the first major one in China after the February sale in Paris of two Chinese bronzes, which were plundered by foreign troops. That French sale prompted the Chinese government to impose controls on host Christie’s International’s activities on the mainland. Collectors, such as Shanghai-based Lu Feifei, said they were concerned the controls might make it more difficult for antiques bought at Hong Kong auctions to clear Chinese border checks.

“We won’t buy any controversial artifacts,” Qu said.

Quek said results of Sotheby’s and Christie’s Chinese art sales in New York last month show demand for the category hasn’t been affected by the government rules. Christie’s sold 77 percent of the lots it offered at its New York auction of Chinese ceramics and artworks from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, including a blue-and-white basin from the Yongle period (1403-1424), which fetched $2.3 million.

Wine Auction

Sotheby’s will also hold its first wine sale in Hong Kong, auctioning 9,000 bottles from a single collection, including six Chateau Petrus 1971 magnums that may fetch as much as HK$140,000. Of the bottles offered, 1,200 of them are in larger sizes. Sotheby’s expects the wine auction to fetch HK$30 million.

The top lots in the Chinese contemporary-art category are Yue Minjun’s “Hat Series – Armed Forces” and Zhang Xiaogang’s “Untitled,” both of which may fetch as much as HK$5.5 million each, Sotheby’s said. The star item at Sotheby’s April 5 Southeast Asian art sale is Indonesian painter I Nyoman Masriadi’s “Negosiasi,” the title of which means negotiation.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s hold biannual sales in Hong Kong, the third-biggest art auction market after New York and London.

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