Chinese desert Hong Kong art market

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Sotheby’s has reported a sharp drop in mainland Chinese participation in its Hong Kong sales just as the auction house opens a new gallery in the city, paying some of the highest commercial rent in the world.

Kevin Ching, chief executive officer of Sotheby’s Asia, said on Friday that mainland Chinese buyers accounted for only 20-25 per cent of the $316m sales from last month’s spring auctions, which he blamed on the country’s moves to tighten access to credit. Just six months ago, mainland buyers accounted for 44 per cent of the $411m sales recorded in Sotheby’s autumn auctions in Hong Kong.

“There used to be five to six mainland Chinese individuals who would bid like crazy here but they did not make any offer in the spring sales,” Mr Ching said at the opening of the new Hong Kong gallery, which coincided with the city’s annual art fair.

The boom in Chinese demand has helped the top end of the art market recover to 2008 prices after the global financial crisis, and is the main reason why Hong Kong has become the world’s third largest art auction market by sales. In 2010, nearly half the buyers at Sotheby’s Hong Kong auctions were mainland Chinese.

Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s set new records for top lots in New York sales recently but fears that the art world would be hit by a slowdown in the Chinese economy and the eurozone crisis have sent Sotheby’s shares down 25 per cent this month. The only publicly traded big auction house reported a $10.7m net loss for the first quarter.

Despite China’s monetary tightening, it is unusual to find an example of the country’s wealthiest spending less. Luxury retail and Macau’s casinos, which rely on Chinese high rollers, are still booming. Macau’s April gaming revenue was up 22 per cent from a year earlier.

Mr Ching said he was not concerned because traditional art buyers from other parts of Asia, especially Taiwan, had filled the gap.

“What is encouraging is that art buyers from Taiwan and south-east Asia have made a major comeback. Before, they were priced out of the market by new mainland buyers,” he said.

François Curiel, Christie’s Asia president, insisted that art sales in Hong Kong and Chinese demand would continue to grow. He pointed out that mainland Chinese auction houses had become some of the biggest in the industry. “Even if some of the figures are exaggerated, it cannot all be faked. The trend is very clear.”

Christie’s will host its spring sales in Hong Kong from May 26 to 30.

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