April 17, 2006

Western art appeal going once, twice, sold in Asia

By John Ruwitch

HONG KONG (Reuters) - The thick brush strokes, brilliant
colors and angular figure of Dora Maar depicted in Pablo
Picasso's 1941 painting of his mistress and a cat are a world
away from the delicate detail of traditional Chinese scrolls.

Nevertheless, "Dora Maar au Chat" and more than two dozen
other works by Western impressionist and contemporary masters
like Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Andy Warhol and Roy
Lichtenstein were on display in Hong Kong this month -- and not
at a museum.

The paintings came through Hong Kong in separate traveling
shows by the world's two biggest auction houses, Sotheby's and
Christie's, hoping to give would-be Asian art buyers a chance
to see masterpieces that will go on the block in May.

While New York and London remain the undisputed global hubs
of the fine art market, Hong Kong has become the heart of a
fast growing Asian art market.

"Asia now is really becoming the third leg to the stool,"
said Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby's managing director for Asia.

"The fact that we bring a $50 million Picasso here shows
that we take this market incredibly seriously," he added.

Asian interest in such works, once weak, is real, said
David Norman, executive vice president and co-chairman of
impressionist and modern art for Sotheby's, who travelled to
Hong Kong with the painting.

"We're definitely here because there are definitely people
who wanted to see it, who we believed, if not based here, would
be passing though here more conveniently than getting to New
York," he said.

A few blocks away, Van Gogh's portrait "L'Arlesienne,
Madame Ginoux" hangs in a private display room in Christie's
22nd storey office. The piece is expected to fetch more than
$40 million in Christie's May 2 auction in New York.

On the facing wall is a huge and pristine Picasso being
sold by the artist's grandson. The side walls are adorned with
smaller paintings by other greats of the era.

Ken Yeh, deputy chairman of Christie's in Asia, says the
firm has tripled its investment in the region in the past three

"Since we've started bringing painting previews to
introduce the paintings to the local collectors, we've seen
really a very obvious increase of people actually bidding and
buying at the auctions for impressionist modern," he said.


For the time being, most of the serious interest is coming
from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.

But, as one might expect, China's precipitous economic rise
has caught the attention of the auctioneers.

Chinese interest so far is focused in areas like
traditional Chinese porcelain and paintings, and mainland
Chinese art buyers are already starting to change that market
and bid up prices.

Mainland Chinese interest will no doubt expand into
impressionist and modern works, said Guy Bennett, Senior Vice
President and head of evening sales for impressionist and
modern art at Christie's.

"As they feel more confident and their collection begins to
mature, and they begin to invest more in their collecting
tradition and habits, then they begin to move into this field,"
he said.

Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's principal auctioneer, said serious
mainland Chinese participation in auctions of contemporary
Western masterpieces was just a question of time.

"If you look at Chinese decorative art, the way they buy
porcelain, the way they buy objects, it's very quality driven,"
he said.

"So, in contemporary art, the quality is the 1964
Lichtenstein, the 1962 Warhol, all these things that are
considered to be the best. The question always when we talk to
Asian buyers is: Is this the best? It's very quality driven and
money is almost secondary."

The rise of interest in the region is reminiscent, perhaps,
of the 1980s and early 1990s when, during Japan's economic
boom, collectors there delved into the realm of Western

In 1990, Japanese businessman Ryoei Saito set a world price
record at the time when he paid a cool $82.5 million for Van
Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" at a Christie's auction.

For the time being, it's a little early for mainland
Chinese collectors are to be that bold. But, Yeh said, it's
only a matter of time before another "Dr. Gachet" could happen
-- and this time with a Chinese buyer.

"The potential there (in China) is tremendous," he said. "I
wouldn't be surprised if it happens in five years."