HONG KONG (Reuters) - Global financial turmoil has caught up with the red-hot Chinese contemporary art market as bidders failed to buy top-flight paintings at a major Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong on Saturday.
For the past few years, auction rooms in London, New York and Hong Kong have crackled with fierce interest in Chinese contemporary paintings as prices broke record after record.
But in Sotheby's marquee autumn sale of Asian contemporary artwork, a key twice-yearly barometer of market sentiment among the world's top collectors, 19 of 47 prominent works went unsold and others barely hit low estimates.
"The results weren't at all ideal, and prices of contemporary Chinese art seem to have reached a peak now," Jackson See, a Singaporean buyer, told Reuters in the packed auction hall.
"It is showing signs of a real correction," he added.
Works by feted artists Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Liu Wei, Liao Jichun and Zeng Fanzhi failed to sell with Zeng's "After the Long March Andy Warhol arrived in China," for instance, attracting bids far short of its HK$20 million reserve price.
Sotheby's said that after 5 years of "unprecedented growth" the poor showing was to be expected.
"It is not surprising that there will be some leveling off, which is what we also experienced this evening, in addition to some estimates which were overly optimistic," said Evelyn Lin, the Head of Sotheby's Contemporary Asian Art department.
Australian collector Andrew Cox who attended the sale, and plans to soon sell off two quintessential Zeng Fanzhi paintings of masked figures, said the weak showing had made him nervous.
"I'm not sure if it's a great time to sell at the moment, but you don't know. If you don't sell now, you could wait another three years and nothing could happen," he said.
The top lot at the Sotheby's sale was Zhang Xiaogang's 'Bloodline: Big Family No.1," which fetched HK$23.06 million ($2.97 million).
This contrasts sharply with an earlier auction in May hosted by rivals Christie's, which made $9.7 million for its top lot, a large diptych of eight masked youths by Zeng Fanzhi, which set an auction record for any Asian contemporary artwork.
"Today's results aren't acceptable, they're very poor. The contemporary Chinese art market has raced ahead too quickly and now people can't prop it up anymore," said Alex Chan, a bidder from Taiwan at the auction.
Major works by other Asian artists including Japan's Takashi Murakami and India's Subodh Gupta also went unsold.
There were however some bright spots, with strong demand for lower priced, Southeast Asian artists like Ronald Ventura of the Philippines, whose "Nesting Ground" made more than ten times its pre-sale estimate to fetch $280,588.
Indonesian artist I Nyoman Masriadi's sarcastic, comic-book style painting "Sorry Hero, I Forgot" of a Batman and a Superman fetched $HK4.82 million ($620,382), a world auction record for the artist and world record for any piece of contemporary Southeast Asian contemporary art.
Editing by Louise Ireland