You know it's rough out there when Sotheby's makes you pay for coffee. At its five-day Hong Kong auction, the house was able to move only $89 million in antiques (HK$691 million), paintings and gems – less than half the take for the same event in 2008. With bidders forced to HK$20 (which looks more menacing than the U.S. equivalent, $2.50), one can only hope that Sotheby's was able to make up the difference.
This is a far cry from the $227 million that sold a year ago.
Sensitive to the global financial crisis, Sotheby's planned ahead, offering fewer expensive lots, which tend to get a bit more bidder action when financial markets are struggling. A larger number of wine lots showed up, as the liquid flows more easily than canvas. All of the bottles moved at the first Sotheby's Hong Kong wine auction.
Despite the downturn in art prices, some feel that now is a good time to invest in the oldest of old media. Ian Kai, an art dealer based in Beijing, remarked for Bloomberg, "Governments are printing so much money now. Fine artworks might be a better way to store value than currency."
The highest-priced piece at the auction was "Fishing Harvest" by Lin Fengmian, which fetched a hair over $2 million. Most paintings sold for prices well below those of comparable works at last year's auctions. Heading into the Hong Kong auction, Sotheby's cut presale estimates by an average of 20 percent and expanded its offering to include video installations and other non-painting works.
And that could be the enduring benefit of this marketplace.
"We are now seeing conceptual art at Hong Kong auctions, which is fantastic," said Sandra Walters, a Hong Kong-based collector who runs a namesake art-consulting company.
A broader perspective will lead to future returns for artists, collectors and auction houses.