Art professionals cautiously optimistic about Asian art – AFP

HONG KONG AUCTION SALES

The art world is eyeing Hong Kong for the latest litmus test of how prices are holding up amid the global financial crisis, with experts cautiously upbeat about the future of the Asian market.The frenzied scramble to own contemporary works has fizzled quickly as economic realities have started to bite.

London felt the chill in October when two big sales fell short of previous highs just a month after a record-shattering auction of works by Damien Hirst.

Earlier this month in New York, Sotheby’s slashed prices for much-hyped contemporary art works and Francis Bacon’s 1964 “Study for Self Portrait” failed to sell in a Christie’s auction in the city.

At the beginning of October, Sotheby’s autumn sale in Hong Kong, which included modern and contemporary Asian art as well as classical works, brought in 1.1 billion Hong Kong dollars (142 million US dollars), about half of the pre-sale estimate.

In a sale of modern and contemporary Asian art at the Sotheby’s sale, 40 percent of lots remained unsold and the figures were even worse for 20th century Chinese art, with 65 percent of lots failing to find buyers.

Now attention turns back to Hong Kong, where Christie’s is set to launch its five-day autumn sale from November 29.

Art prices have adjusted down 30-50%

Anders Petterson, managing director of London-based art market research company ArtTactic.com, said the contemporary art market has already corrected significantly since hitting peaks earlier this year.

“Prices have been adjusted down 30-50 percent depending on the work and the artist. This brings us back to 2006 levels, but prices are likely to have some time to go before we have reached an equilibrium. This will also depend on how deep the recession in the United States and Europe will become,” he said.

“The correction we see in the Western art markets will spread to emerging markets, with both China and India already starting to feel the pinch.

“Upcoming sales in Hong Kong and in India will give us a better sense of the market sentiment.”

Despite the barrage of gloomy economic news and the falling prices, Jonathan Stone, Christie’s international business director for Asian art, remains upbeat about his upcoming sale.

“It’s a slightly new world we’re in compared with six months ago and I think we need to see where we are. I think overall I am cautiously optimistic.

“There are some very good works and I do believe that any time there are good works will always provide solid results,” he said, adding that price falls could make it easier for collectors to come back into the market.

Stone picks out one of the highlights of the upcoming auction in Hong Kong as being a group of works of Chinese contemporary art from the collection of American filmmaker Oliver Stone.

Another star lot is Zeng Fanzhi’s “From the Masses, To the Masses,” expected to fetch about 30 million Hong Kong dollars.

Expanding interest in Indonesian and Filipino works

For Hong Kong-based art consultant Kate Evans, it is difficult to predict which way the market is heading in the short term, although she presents a more nuanced picture of the scene.

“There is still a market for Asian art, albeit at much lower prices,” she said. “Collectors’ interest is expanding into much more affordable Southeast Asian contemporary art, particularly Indonesian and Filipino art.”

This was shown at the Sotheby’s October sale in Hong Kong, where the modern and contemporary Southeast Asian paintings sale was a high point.

In that category, Indonesian artist I Nyoman Masriadi’s “The Man From Bantul (The Final Round)” sold for almost eight million Hong Kong dollars, a world record for contemporary Southeast Asian art.

Despite the bracing economic circumstances, Hong Kong gallery owner Katie de Tilly reports that business has been brisk in the past couple of months but adds: “We know it’s going to slow down a lot.”

Value in Vietnam and Thailand

The owner of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery said there was great value in works from countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia and that the Chinese market will remain strong in the long term.

She said the price correction was “a really great opportunity to buy because important works will always be important works” and there is more room to negotiate.

Time of buying opportunities

Evans, who runs the Art Radar Asia advisory firm, agreed, saying: “I believe there is a strong case for buying now because the long-term trends support an increase in value for Asian art in particular.”

ArtTactic.com’s Petterson is also positive, saying he sees “this as a time of opportunities, there will be less competition, less hype”.

“The market will revert to focus on the art and its cultural and historical value and importance, so for the long-term player this is a buyer’s market,” he said.

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