By Grace Li
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Sotheby's celebrated its 40 years of business in Asia by raising a better-than-expected HK$4.2 billion ($542 million) in Hong Kong, a record for the global auction house's autumn sales in the city.
Sotheby's biannual sales in Hong Kong are considered a barometer of demand from China and elsewhere in Asia for some of the world's most expensive artworks and luxury goods. As many as 16 records were set at the five-day event.
Among the highlights was Zeng Fanzhi's painting "The Last Supper" - inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's work of the same name - which sold for $23.1 million, setting a record for a piece of Asian contemporary art.
The final result was hailed as a success by Sotheby's, exceeding its forecasts of some $370 million for the more than 3,500 lots on offer. The amount was almost double the $280 million Sotheby's sold at its spring Hong Kong sales in April.
"We've taken the pulse of the Asian art market - it's racing and we are racing with it," Sotheby's Asia Chairman Patti Wong said in a statement, adding that the result "demonstrates the importance of Hong Kong as an international selling center".
A 118.28-carat white diamond fetched $30.6 million, a world auction record for such a gem and the most expensive item sold during the event. The buyer's identity was not disclosed.
China's diamond market, now the world's second-largest after the United States, has more than tripled to $22.8 billion over the last five years, market research firm Euromonitor says.
Another record was set by a massive Ming gilt-bronze figure of a seated Shakyamuni Buddha, which went to a Chinese collector from Guangdong for $30.3 million.
While prices for some paintings and ceramics were strong, the jewellery auction saw around a quarter of pieces go unsold.
Demand for fine Chinese paintings was robust, with 95.3 percent of works sold by lot. They included the auction favourite, Chinese ink master Zhang Daqian's "Spring Dawns Upon the Colourful Hills", which sold for $4.47 million.
Another bright spot was Chinese imperial ceramics, with a blue-and-white palace bowl from the Chenghua period fetching $18 million and a celadon-glazed "Longevity" Ruyi-handled Qianlong vase selling for $11.4 million, five times its estimate.
"The market is very good, better than last year," said Liu Cheng, a Shanghai dealer who goes to the sales every year.
"Although the economy is slowing down, there are still many rich people in China. Some new buyers have come who just want good items without knowing about previous prices, which led to (the current) high prices."
China led world auction revenue for arts and collectibles in 2012, with 8.9 billion euros ($12.02 billion), according to the French government's Conseil des Ventes art market report.
But the market has been dogged by problems, including a Chinese customs investigation of tax evasion on art imports that has cooled sentiment. Other risks are taxes, regulations, widespread fakes and market manipulation, experts say.
($1=7.7541 Hong Kong dollars)
(Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and John O'Callaghan)