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HONG KONG (Reuters) - The global financial crisis doused the Chinese art market boom on Wednesday, with Sotheby's saying it sold HK$1.1 billion ($141.6 million) worth of Asian art in its biannual sales in Hong Kong, around half the expected total.
Sotheby's pre-sale estimate for the five-day auction series had been over HK$2 billion, but numerous categories of artwork including jewelry, Chinese imperial ceramics, Chinese contemporary and 20th century paintings, were riven with unsold lots as global buyers and collectors sat on the sidelines.
"When it comes to certain high value pictures, maybe our sellers have been a little over-optimistic with estimates and certainly in a category which has gone up so many times in the last few years. It is only normal," Patti Wong, Sotheby's Asia Chairman told Reuters.
"While we didn't reach our series' low estimate, this is the third highest sales total ever achieved for Sotheby's Hong Kong."
The weak showing marks a symbolic turning point for the seemingly unstoppable Chinese art market, which has steamed ahead on a flood of new Chinese wealth and the country's growing international cultural stature and feted star artists.
With global credit markets frozen up amid the financial meltdown, sentiment appears to have finally weakened during Sotheby's biannual event, seen as a key barometer for Chinese art market sentiment, along with sales in London and New York.
In Sotheby's marquee autumn evening sale of Asian contemporary art over the weekend, 19 of 47 prominent works went unsold and others barely hit low estimates.
Demand was also weak for 20th century Chinese artwork, with only 39 of 110 lots sold, given weak demand, high valuations and narrow participation by buyers outside of key greater China markets such as China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Over 60 percent of lots in the imperial ceramics sale also failed to sell.
Sotheby's jewelry sales were also sluggish with over half, or 162 of 321 items failing to find buyers -- including a heavily marketed 102.56-carat vivid yellow diamond necklace.
Wong said, however, that "bullish sentiment" was apparent in other categories such as lesser-priced Southeast Asian and fine classical Chinese paintings with some record-breaking results.
"Collectors are increasingly being selective and there's a strong migration into value," Wong added.
A batch of Chinese imperial treasures including an emperor's seal and a scroll painting bucked the weak sentiment however, underscoring demand for exceptional objects of great quality, rarity and historical significance remains strong.
In Sotheby's "Legacies of Imperial Power" sale, a massive jade seal etched with the four Chinese characters "Qianlong yubi" (in the Imperial hand of Qianlong (emperor) fetched HK$63.4 million ($8.13 million) after bidding in the half-full auction hall -- a record for any Chinese imperial white jade seal.
Another Qing treasure, a 15-meter-long Qianlong military handscroll, the "Dayue Tu" -- painted with 16,000 miniature figures including the emperor himself, sold for HK$67.86 million ($8.7 million), a record for any Qing imperial painting, but well below its pre-sale estimate of over $HK80 million.
Nicolas Chow, Sotheby's global head of Chinese ceramics and works of art said the results "illustrate the growing interest in unique historical works of art and are a testament to the demand for objects which reflect ... the Chinese imperial past."
Editing by David Fox