China ceramics sale seen glowing amid economic gloom

By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Despite darkening global economic clouds, Sotheby's expects solid demand for a batch of rare Chinese ceramics from a vintage European collection after a much hyped auction of works from the same Swiss owners fell flat in April.

The Meiyintang collection, an assemblage of European ceramics gathered over nearly half a century by pharmaceutical tycoons, the Zuellig brothers, was one of the last intact classic major private collections of Chinese ceramics until put on the block in Hong Kong earlier in the year.

But the much-hyped sale ultimately disappointed with two blockbuster lots, a golden phoenix Qing vase and a sublime Chenghua palace bowl, languishing unsold on the auction block after market players blamed excessive pre-sale estimates and tighter credit requirements for choking off enthusiasm.

The two items found undisclosed buyers afterwards.

Sotheby's, however, is hopeful a second offering of 40 Meiyintang treasures to be put up for sale in October will stoke fresh interest despite stock market jitters over Europe's worsening debt crisis and U.S. economic fragility.

"From the few collectors we've shown the pieces to I'm confident the sale will do very well," Nicolas Chow, Sotheby's Asia deputy chairman, told Reuters.

"There are some people who're worried about the market but if you look at how solid assets have been moving like gold and diamonds I see no reason to worry about Chinese art,

"An important piece of porcelain is maybe a little bit less liquid than a great diamond but at the same time I would say it's at least as solid an asset as that."

Among the Meiyintang (Hall Among the Rose Beds) imperial wares is a group of large, physically grand objects including a bulbous half-meter wide famille-rose vase from the Qing Qianlong period (1723-1735) decorated with glossy pink peaches, an auspicious Chinese symbol for longevity, and interlaced rose branches that is expected to fetch up to $15 million.

Another, older, blue and white Meiping vase from the Ming Yongle dynasty (1403-1425) adorned with monochromatic fruit and floral motifs is also estimated to be worth up to $15 million.

The entire Meiyintang sale is expected to net $55 million.


Chow said pre-sales estimates for the Meiyintang (Hall among the rose beds) wares would be less aggressive than last time round. But a controversial stipulation that bidders provide hefty pre-sales deposits would still be imposed to mitigate the risks of buyers defaulting on payments as the prices of imperial ceramics soar ever higher.

Late last year, a Chinese collector bid a record 51.6 million pounds for an ornate Qing vase discovered in the attic of an English house but refused to pay up in a conspicuous instance of non-payment for Chinese art.

Since then, Sotheby's and other auction houses have required deposits as a safeguard against such credit risks.

"At the time when we were promoting ourselves and when the sale took place, there were rumors around the market that a big vase that had been sold in Europe had not been paid for. So there was a certain degree of paranoia and caution on the part of buyers," said Chow, referring to the April Meiyintang sale.

While market players said Sotheby's insisted on a HK$8 million ($1,026 million) deposit for premium lots in its spring Hong Kong sales, the amount was expected to be less this time round, Chow said, without giving specifics.

Despite Sotheby's bullishness, its share price has slipped over thirty percent since April to $36.22, with the luxury art market often shadowing economic cycles. But at the very top end of the market, masterpieces of Chinese art have bucked downturns to climb in value as robust alternative investments.

(Editing by Elaine Lies)

Editor's Picks