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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Demand for top-tier Chinese artwork remained robust at Sotheby's biannual Hong Kong sales on Wednesday, as buyers ignored troubled global stock markets to set record prices for feted blue-chip artists such as Zhang Xiaogang.
On a day when China's benchmark Shanghai Composite Index tumbled more than 5 percent on fresh fears about the subprime debt crisis and the U.S. economy, art buyers at Sotheby's packed auction hall showed no sign of curbed exuberance, bidding actively for the day's premium lots.
The most expensive work to be hammered off was Liu Xiaodong's politically charged "Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats," which fetched HK$61.92 million ($7.83 million) including the buyer's premium, almost tripling the previous world auction record for the artist. The buyer was from Asia, Sotheby's said.
Liu's realist work is comprised of 18 separate life-sized portraits of ordinary soldiers from China and Taiwan, symbolizing fraught ties between the two sides across the Taiwan Straits.
Another major work was an oil painting by red-hot Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang, "Bloodline: The Big Family No. 3," which fetched HK$47.36 million ($6.06 million) after brisk bidding. It doubled the presale estimate and is Zhang's most expensive work ever auctioned, Sotheby's said. The buyer was Taiwanese.
Zhang and Liu are among a vanguard of Chinese contemporary artists including Cai Guoqiang, Xu Bing, Wang Guangyi, Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun who have seen an astronomical appreciation in the value of their works in the past three to four years.
"There was robust competition from across Asia but we saw international bidding and buying at all levels of the market as well," said Evelyn Lin, Sotheby's head of contemporary Chinese art, in a statement.
Despite generous bids for top works, the frothy state of the Chinese art market weighed on the minds of some buyers.
"I don't think the whole market is like a bubble, but there are some artists that are overpriced," said Michael Wang, a Taiwanese collector of Chinese art for the past 20 years who bought a work by Wu Guanzhong, a leading figure in the development of 20th century Chinese art.
"Some of the middle-tier artists' work isn't cheap, but is their work of the necessary quality?" he added.
Earlier in the day, a 1946 oil painting by Taiwanese artist Guo Bochuan, "The Forbidden City," a Renoir-influenced rendering of the former residence of Beijing's emperors, fetched HK$27.2 million, an auction record for the artist, but well below its presale estimate.
Bidding was also patchy for modern 20th century artwork with a sprinkling of unsold lots, notably several abstract works by Zao Wou-Ki. Sotheby's Spring sales of Asian art will run until April 11 and feature a rare imperial gold collection, ceramics and jewellery.
Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Jerry Norton