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Sotheby's cautious on Asia sales in fragile market

 A general exterior view of Sotheby
A general exterior view of Sotheby's auction house on New Bond Street in London February 15, 2007. REUTERS/Kieran Doherty
— image credit: Reuters

By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Auction house Sotheby's expects to sell artworks for $77 million at its spring Asian sales in Hong Kong, a condensed and competitively priced selection tailored for these financially difficult times.

While the expected sales tally is substantially lower than a year ago, Sotheby's is hoping the Asian art market will show signs of convalescing in the first of its biannual flagship regional sales this year, often seen as a market barometer.

"The actual feeling is that the mood is much, much better than what we experienced in the fall last year," said Kevin Ching, the Chief Executive Officer of Sotheby's Asia.

"We made the necessary adjustments, like we decided to only present fresh objects with great provenance, and adjusted prices to reflect the market," he told Reuters.

Sotheby's last spring sold HK$1.77 billion ($228.3 million) worth of artwork, almost three times as much as what it expects to sell this time round. After a record-breaking bull run, last autumn heralded weakening demand for Asian and Chinese art as the global credit crisis deepened and collectors stayed away.

Ching said certain categories, like contemporary Chinese paintings, had seen pre-sales valuations scaled back by some 20 to 30 percent from last year, while a wine auction on Saturday -- intended to tap the city's burgeoning wine market -- will see more attractively priced vintages.

Despite the global art market's weakness, there have been recent bright spots. Christie's February sales in Paris of Yves Saint Laurent's monumental art collection yielded a record-breaking $470 million.

The sale did, however, stir a major controversy over the auctioning off of two looted bronze animal heads from Beijing's Old Summer Palace, which sparked protests from China, a nationalistic backlash, and strict checks being imposed on Christie's trade of high-end imperial antiques into China.

Ching, though, brushed off any lasting fallout from the bronzes in the consigning and sale of imperial Chinese antiques.

"I don't think that has any effect at all on us," he said.

"People are in a buying mood and people realize the prices are good, it's a buyer's market."

Over 1,700 objects will be hammered off at Sotheby's Asia sales from April 4-8, including Chinese classical and contemporary paintings, imperial ceramics, jewelry and watches.

Among the highlights are a Tang dynasty tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl octagonal box which could fetch over HK$40 million ($5.16 million). A Qing dynasty Qianlong celadon-glazed reticulated vase could go for $HK20 million ($2.58 million), while a painting of "Mount Jiuhua" by Chinese master Li Keran could make $500,000.

The sale will include Sotheby's first major wine auction in Hong Kong, which is positioning itself as a wine hub, with $3 million of fine vintages expected to be auctioned off.

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)

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