Asia demand drives up art sales with China, India targeted

LONDON (REUTERS) - Increasing demand from Asian buyers boosted sales at major international auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's in the first half of the year, with expectations of growing participation by Chinese and Indian collectors in the global art marketplace.

London-based Christie's on Tuesday said global sales hit 2.4 billion pounds (S$4.5 billion) in the first six months, up 9 per cent on a year ago, aided by the US$58 million (S$73 million) sale of Jackson Pollock's Number 19 and as Asian bidders rose 15 per cent.

Sotheby's saw a 13 per cent increase in Asian bidders at the start of the year, which helped boost sales to US$2.55 billion, up 6.5 per cent against a year ago, excluding private sales and dealer revenues. Marquee sales for Sotheby's included a US$37 million Gerhard Richter and Barnett Newman's US$44 million Onement VI.

Christie's chief executive Steven Murphy said the strong sales came ahead of the auctioneer's first China auction in Shanghai in September and first sale in India in December.

"We have seen a cultural surge at all levels and in all countries, with interest growing towards art and objects," Mr Murphy told Reuters.

Top sellers for Christie's in the first half included a US$56 million Roy Lichtenstein work, a record US$39 million pink Golconda diamond and a US$27 million Mark Rothko canvas.

Soaring prices at a time of economic uncertainty have raised questions of an art market bubble but sales have remained robust with a broader range of international buyers helping support the key British and US markets.

"Art lovers from Latin America, Russia, Asia and the Middle East have been active in our global sales for some time now, but this season in London we have seen them engaging at an entirely new level," Mr Robin Woodhead, chairman of Sotheby's International , said in a statement after a recent auction in London.

Chinese spending on art has risen rapidly over the last few years, propelling it to the top of the spending charts in 2011, although an economic slowdown saw the Asian powerhouse slip behind the US into second place last year.

"China had a slight pause last year with an economic slowdown and a government in transition, but now we are seeing levels back to where they were in 2011," said Mr Murphy.

The second half of the year, which traditionally sees slightly less volume that the first six months, will include auctions of works celebrating British supermodel Kate Moss at Christie's and Chinese ceramics and paintings at Sotheby's.

Following 11 exclusively online auctions in the first half of the year, Mr Murphy said the firm aimed to hold 60 in the full year.

"We're trying to boost accessibility to the art market. We are, of course, expanding around the world, but e-commerce is going to be equally important as bricks and mortar," he said.

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