HONG KONG (Reuters) - A major collection of Chinese ceramics seen as one of the best to be sold in decades, fell flat in a Sotheby's sale on Thursday, in a surprise setback for the market given a relative lack of Chinese buying interest and high estimates.
Amid great market expectations, four hundred people crammed into Sotheby's Hong Kong auction room for a chance to witness the sale of perhaps the best and last intact major private Western collections of Chinese ceramics, assembled over half a century by Swiss pharmaceutical tycoons, the Zuellig brothers.
Bidding though, was surprisingly tame from the start for the 77 lots of Ming and Qing wares spanning dynasties from the 14th to 18th centuries, with 30 percent of lots going unsold and the sale netting just $51.2 million, around half the pre-sale estimate.
"There was guarded bidding on some of the top lots. As we have seen all week long, the market sets its own prices," said Nicolas Chow, Sotheby's deputy Asia chairman.
The aggressive, effusive participation of Chinese buyers, which last autumn helped power a record-breaking sale of ceramics from the collection of J.T. Tai, was absent on the night, as some mainland Chinese dealers grumbled about high prices, and many walked out before the end.
One exceptional piece -- a pear-shaped, eight-inch tall Qing vase with a brilliantly painted pair of golden pheasants had been expected to fetch $23 million, but bidding spluttered after the opening price was set at HK$100 million.
The pheasant vase had been sold by Sotheby's in 1997 for HK$9 million.
A rare palace bowl from the Chenghua Ming period (1465-1487), unblemished, with a blue and white pattern of fruiting melons and vines also went unsold after failing to hit its reserve price of HK$80 million.
Market participants said the ceramics, reflecting the Zuelligs' refined eye for more understated ceramics, may have appealed less to Chinese buyers who have most prized more ostentatious, spectacular late Qing pieces.
"You can't force it on the Chinese. It's always better to have ten hands go up in the air for a low estimate than to have two hands or no hands at a much higher estimate," said James Hennessy, a Western Asian art dealer who bought an exquisite blue and white 'fish Pond' early Ming brushwasher for 6.6 million in a rare bright spot on the night.
"A lot of it is speculators and they want to feel as if there's a return at the end of the day."
The Meiyintang (Hall Among the Rose Beds) collection had lain cloistered with the intensely private Zuellig family in Switzerland, closed to the eyes of all but a handful of insiders, and was known largely from catalogues by noted sinologist Regina Krahl.
Some said the results shouldn't necessarily be seen as a blow to the market, with the March New York sales of Chinese ceramics doing particularly well including an ornate 'famille Rose' gold decorated vase that went for around $18 million.
While the growing scarcity of exceptional imperial ceramics has fueled higher prices as Chinese millionaires repatriate pieces back from the West, the auction was also a sign the Chinese aren't willing to be led on by excessive estimates.
"The Chinese aren't stupid," said Robin Markbreiter, the director of Arts of Asia magazine. "They will look at the market prices as well and use that as a benchmark. It's a sign that they don't want to pay over the top."
Editing by Paul Casciato