This April, Sotheby's Hong Kong (25/20/12% buyer's premium) posted their most lucrative Asian series to date tripling last Spring's takings to bag just shy of HK$2bn.
The series was notable for increased levels of competition at the top end of the market from mainland Chinese, who together with other Asian buyers and a handful of Western dealers and collectors pushed prices for iconic 18th century Imperial Chinese art to new highs.
Asian financial muscle was evident throughout the ten auctions of classical, modern and contemporary Asian art, wine, jewellery and watches that took HK$1998m (£167.6m), including premium, from April 3 to 8.
Selling rates by lot averaged around 80 per cent, boosted by a 'white glove' wine auction (the saleroom's third in a row). The firm posted all-time house highs for mixed-vendor outings of classical Chinese paintings, watches, jewellery and jadeite.
Far and away the biggest contributor to the series' fortunes was the HK$710m (£59.6m) mixed-vendor Chinese ceramics and works of art auction on April 8. It boasted a 74 per cent selling rate by lot and benefited from a number of blue-chip consignments, including the week's star lot: this 13/4in (5cm) long white jade seal dated 1796, pictured here.
The seal, inscribed Tai Shang Huang Di, or Treasure of the Emperor Emeritus, is one of a handful commissioned to mark the abdication of the Qianlong (1736-95) emperor. The others largely reside in Beijing's Palace Museum.
The price paid for this iconic Imperial rarity illustrates the accelerated pace of the market for the finest treasures. Trade rumour had it that the Chinese buyers bidding in the room, who bought widely at the sale, were a consortium of Beijing agents. They secured the seal at HK$85m (£7.13m) - a record for a white jade carving previously set by this same seal when it sold in these rooms in October 2007 at HK$41m (then £2.61m).
The HK$19m (£1.59m) bid by a private buyer from Greater China for the sale's cover lot, a Yongzheng (1723-35) mark and period doucai bottle vase with a star crack to its base, demonstrates the value of international auction exposure. A consortium of London dealers bought the vase for 840,000 Euros (£763,635) in a non-specialist Paris sale in January this year (reported on page 48 of ATG No 1932).
Sotheby's specialist Nicolas Chow said fewer Western buyers were successful at the top level as a result of unexpectedly stiff Asian competition, but London dealers such as Eskenazi and Knapton Rasti Asian Art were among those active at the sales, as were Littleton & Hennessy Asian Art, who bought a HK$16m (£1.34m) 18th century zitan table.
Not everyone found the naturalistic, abstract forms of the 44 scholar's objects from the HK$41m (£3.44m) Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection on April 8 (the firm's second dispersal from the assemblage) as visually arresting as the vendor, widely acknowledged to be that of the respected dealer/collector Hugh Moss. Take-up by lot was 60 per cent.
But as in the mixed-vendor outing, the Imperial scholar's objects sold well, with an Imperial Qianlong bamboo-veneered ruyi sceptre establishing a record for a bamboo carving at HK$13.5m (£1.1m).
Imperial Chinese art headlined the series, but among the best-performing categories elsewhere was the 237-lot mixed-vendor fine Chinese painting outing on April 6 that made HK$305m (£27.2m). The auction fielded just seven casualties, with its star turn, Fu Baoshi's Chess Playing from 1943, at HK$34m (£2.85m).
By Kate Hunt
£1 = HK$11.92