Major Chinese ceramics sale fails to live up to hype

Thu Apr 7, 2011 3:20pm EDT
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By James Pomfret

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.   Continued...