Auction house Sotheby’s raises over US$400 million in sixth straight sale as phone, online bids offset drop in visitors amid protests

Louise Moon

Auction house Sotheby’s raised over US$400 million in a week in Hong Kong, in line with its last six sales events, as an increase in telephone and online bidding offset a fall in the number of visitors amid violent protests that are plaguing the city.

New York-headquartered Sotheby’s sold 3,423 lots in 20 auctions over five days at the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, it said on Wednesday. Sales totalled HK$3.35 billion (US$426 million), slightly below its spring auctions in the city which raised HK$3.8 billion (US$485 million) and was the second highest amount since 2013.

Still, it was the sixth consecutive sales series to top US$400 million, and was towards the top end of the company’s expectations of HK$2.5 million to HK$3.57 million.

Sotheby’s is one of the world’s largest brokers of art, jewellery, real estate and collectibles.

Its auction came as Hong Kong reels from more than four months of anti-government protests that have taken a huge toll on everything from tourist numbers, to hotel and restaurant bookings and the retail industry. On top of that, the ongoing US-China trade war and a global economic downturn have harmed consumer spending.

“While we observed a decrease in the number of visitors attending the exhibition, the percentage of phone bidding and online bidding grew by 17 per cent and 44 per cent respectively,” said Kevin Ching, CEO of Sotheby’s Asia. He did not say how many less visitors attended.

Ching previously said additional phone lines would be installed in the sales rooms this autumn to cater to an expected increase in remote bidding. Aside from that, business would be as normal.

Retail sales in Hong Kong plunged by a record 23 per cent year-on-year in August to HK$29.4 billion, according to the Census and Statistics Department. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Retail Management Association warned October’s figures could reach a new low because of the protests, highlighting a serious drop in consumer sentiment in the city.

Hong Kong retail sales suffer worst decline on record amid protests

It is not only high-street shops being hit, but luxury brands like Burberry, which is likely to see sales plunge by US$122.2 million this year, according to financial services firm Jefferies.

Meanwhile large-scale events have been cancelled, including the city’s annual Wine & Dine Festival, originally planned for October 31. And tourist numbers have tanked, with 40 per cent less people travelling to Hong Kong in August compared to the same month last year.

According to the company, the buyers were from nearly 40 companies, mainly in Asia, and in particular Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan as in past seasons. A quarter of them were under the age of 40.

Five works sold for over HK$100 million (US$12 million), including Chinese artist Sanyu’s painting, Nu, which went for HK$198 million.

“The confidence of our consignors this season and the demand demonstrated by buyers throughout our week of sales is a strong market signal as we look forward to our marquee November sales in New York and beyond,” said Tad Smith, chief executive officer.

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