If the recent Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong is anything to go by, Chinese art is on an upward trajectory so steep it’s nearly vertical. It was the most lucrative of the firm’s Hong Kong spring sale series ever. Bidding was fierce; estimates were smashed; and auction-goers pushed prices of top lots to pre-credit-crisis levels. Over the five-day auction, lots made a total of HK$2 billion (US$258m), beating Sotheby’s prediction of HK$1.3 billion (US$167m) and positively trouncing the HK$691 million (US$89m) taken at the equivalent auction last year. No doubt Christie’s and Bonhams hope to follow this performance with their own Hong Kong spring sales next month.
Nicolas Chow, Sotheby’s senior director for China and Southeast Asia describes the market as a one-way elevator going upwards. But as auctioneers lick their lips at the prospect of further jaw-dropping sales, a niggling question lingers: how long can the boom times last? The sums that Chinese collectors are prepared to pay has caused concerns that the market might fall prey to an artificially inflated price war. And there are other factors: Western auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s once dominated the Chinese art auction market, but home-grown auction houses like China Guardian and Beijing’s Poly International are steadily building their market share. Pola Antebi, Christie’s head of Chinese ceramics and works of art, noted that the number of ceramics offered at Christie’s Hong Kong sales has dropped by almost half in recent years. The auction giant now appears unable to access the supply of antiques within China due to export restrictions on Chinese cultural properties acquired from abroad. And while mainland art collectors are keen to repatriate Chinese antiques, this means that fewer pieces are available at auction. While there may be opportunities yet to surface, it sounds like this elevator has a glass ceiling.