HONG KONG (Reuters) - Growing caution among Asian buyers led to a tepid start for the autumn Hong Kong sales of global auctioneers Christie's, which failed to sell all lots at a three-day wine sale and a contemporary art auction.
While the wine sales, which consisted of mixed lots and a private single-owner sale, recorded a slightly better-than-expected HK$64.70 million ($8.3 million), the lackluster results in the first two days of the auction were unexpected, said Christie's Head of Wine Sales, Charles Curtis.
"I did really expect it to go better. I knew that Lafite was soft and that it had struggled in my competitor's auctions in recent months but I didn't realize the depth of the problem," Curtis told Reuters.
Christie's November 25-30 sale is being closely eyed as a barometer of Asian demand for some of the world's most expensive wine, art, watches and jewelry at a time when global luxury firms are looking to emerging markets such as China to offset flagging growth in developed markets.
Specific wine lots including 14 bottles of Chateau Haut-Brion and an oil lot from Chinese painter Zao Wou-ki were among items attracting the top bids at the auction.
But in total only 84 percent of the wine lots were sold, and 74 percent of lots sold from the evening auction for Asian 20th Century and Contemporary art.
The six-day Christie's sales feature ceramic works including an underglaze copper-red and blue 'mallet' vase, expected to sell for up to $2.58 million, and a pair of F Flawless Type IIA round brilliant-cut diamonds expected to sell for up to $9 million on Tuesday.
Appetite and purchasing power for the world's most expensive wines remains strong, but buyers were increasingly looking to find bargain prices rather than pay top dollar, Curtis said.
"Buyers are being cautious and they are savvy now. The people who are really into it and are building big collections, they don't want to overpay. They are not saying I want this wine at any price. They want the right wine at the right price."
In October, at rival auction house Sotheby's autumn sales held in Hong Kong, buyers passed up lots of Chateau Lafite 2001, choosing to focus on Burgundy wines. Demand for Lafite has been more subdued in recent months due concerns it has become too common and fears over faked wine grow said industry experts.
Chinese buyers had rushed headlong into Lafite over the past year, sending prices skyrocketing. At Christie's September Hong Kong wine auction, a single lot of 300 bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild was sold for $539,280 to an anonymous Chinese phone bidder.
At Christie's current auction, Burgundy was a bright spot, with a 12-bottle lot of Romanee-Conti-Vintage 1985 sold for HK$1.2 million, close to the top end of its pre-sale estimate of HK$1.3 million.
Italian wines were also all sold above their estimates, said Curtis, signaling buyers were trying to diversify their portfolios.
Wine buyers were mostly from Hong Kong, followed by China, Singapore and Taiwan. Wine demand in Hong Kong has remained robust despite global economic uncertainty, underscoring the financial city's credentials as a prominent wine hub due to strong demand from mainland Chinese buyers.
Since 2008, when the former British colony scrapped wine duties from 40 percent to zero, wine imports have almost quadrupled to $898 million in 2010 with the proliferation of wine merchants, auctioneers, distributors and storage cellars.
Sentiment was also mixed at Christie's sale of Asian 20th Century and Contemporary art on Saturday night and Sunday.
Although the sale racked up a combined HK$705 million, beating a pre-sale estimate of HK$540 million, key works by Chinese artists Zeng Fangzhi and Zhang Xiaogang went unsold during the auction.
However, Eric Chang, International Director of Christie's Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art Department told Reuters that after-sales activity had been strong with Zhang Xiaogang's "Bloodline Big Family No.9" portrait sold immediately after the auction officially closed.
"The market is very cautious but we did have a lot of after sales right after the auction yesterday. Some are still ongoing. Estimates were too high and recently the market has had very high expectations," Chang said.
Certain lots such as Chinese painter Zao Wou-ki's oil "Cerf volant et oiseaux" which was sold for HK$35.38 million, more than double its presale high estimate of HK$15 million, boosted the overall sales result.
Total sales from the autumn and spring auction of Christie' Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art this year have reached
HK$1.52 billion - the largest ever achieved at Christie's.
Editing by Charlie Zhu and Paul Casciato