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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Auction giant Sotheby's made a higher-than-expected $168 million or so in total sales for its autumn Asian sales in Hong Kong, in what it said was a sign of strengthening sentiment in the stricken Chinese art market.
Sotheby's said its sales tally for the array of Chinese antiques and paintings, Asian contemporary art, wine, jewelry and watches put up in its fall auctions, was the third highest sales total for its closely watched biannual Hong Kong sales, and 88 percent higher than its spring sales tally.
But for observers looking for evidence of a stronger footing for the Chinese art market after a troubled year, the results were mixed, with collectors still reluctant to put up outstanding works for sale, and the auctions still riddled with unsold lots.
The rebound was also partly the result of Sotheby's offering nearly 50 percent more works for sale than the spring.
Patti Wong, Sotheby's Asia chairman, described the overall results as "strong," with buyers pursuing the most valuable and rare works. She also described "notably stronger" participation by mainland Chinese buyers -- considered a vital pillar if the market is to recover more substantially.
Demand, as has traditionally been the case, was ferocious for the sprinkling of exceptional works cropping up in the sales, including a rare, Qing dynasty "zitan" emperor's dragon throne which was sold to a Chinese buyer for $11.07 million.
"The Chinese (antiques) market is stronger than any other market, it's going to keep going up, because it's getting thinner on the ground and more people are buying it, especially in China," said London-based Asian art dealer Nader Rasti.
Other highlights included a large blue-and-white Qianlong moonflask that fetched $5.1 million, a superb and rare Ming dynasty Chenghua bowl that made $4.7 million and a painting by Chinese master Sanyu "Lotus et Poissons Rouges," which made $4.7 million, just shy of a world auction record for the artist.
"The market is fantastic," leading Chinese ceramics collector-dealer Robert Chang told Reuters after an auction.
Despite such ebullience, 43 percent of lots went unsold in the marquee ceramics and Chinese artwork sale on Thursday.
The Asian contemporary sale also saw 23 percent of works go unsold, including a batch of high-profile works by blue-chip Chinese artists once held by top British collector Charles Saatchi and the works of other big names like Yue Minjun.
Unlike the once red-hot market's heyday in 2007 and 2008 when records toppled like dominoes, few works touched the $1 million mark except Zhang Xiaogang's "Comrade," though encouraging results were seen for the works of Liu Ye and Li Songsong.
While the Chinese art market has been hit by the financial crisis, especially contemporary Chinese art, more traditional categories of Chinese paintings and antiques have fared better.
Overall one of the strongest showings came in the field of fine Chinese paintings including inkbrush landscapes and calligraphy, which notched up its highest ever Asia sales tally.
A stunning and eclectic "Water, Pine and Stone Retreat collection" of scholar's objects and Chinese objets d'art -- sourced over many decades by prominent collector, dealer and scholar Hugh Moss -- also achieved solid results. Te top lot -- a translucent Qianlong yellow jade bowl with a thick base -- sold for almost five times its estimate at $1.7 million.