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For Christmas shopping, try Hong Kong auctions

Pulling your hair out over what to buy your loved ones for Christmas? How about dropping into one of the many auctions in Hong Kong this week?

The Collector is only half kidding. True, you’d have to be as rich as Croesus, or at least Joseph Lau Luen-hung, to pick up that 10-carat ruby-and-diamond ring at Christie’s on November 29 (it has a reserve of HK$68.8 million). But there are plenty of lots that are more affordable this week and next, when no fewer than eight auction houses have sales in Hong Kong.

Christie’s has entry-level Chinese paint­ings that it sells online as well as at its Hong Kong auctions, and these are on display at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre until November 28, the deadline for entering bids. Many were gifts from modern masters to their students in Hong Kong, such as Ding Yanyong’s Lotus and Frog, a charm­ing little ink painting of a comical-looking frog perched on the stem of a lotus flower. It is estimated to sell for HK$20,000 to HK$30,000. Including the 25 per cent buyer’s premium, you could take home a work by one of Hong Kong’s best-known ink artists for as little as HK$25,000.

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Or head over to the jewellery sale on November 29 and bid whatever you like for a Cartier diamond ring that has no reserve price. It is size 6½, has rather small dia­monds, and is estimated at just HK$5,000 to HK$8,000 before fees.

These are not great times for auction houses, with many collectors holding out for a better economic climate before selling. Transactions are down because there just aren’t that many pieces coming to market that appeal to veteran collectors, and specu­lators have been driven away by the down­turn. Auctioneers are increasingly turning to the lower end of the market, to lure more people into what might seem an inacces­sible, exclusive hobby for the super rich.

At least that’s the intention. But consider the Unplugged sale at Bonhams on November 21. The 223-year-old British house had on sale a set of porcelain plates that Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara had made for the Asia Society gift shop for his solo exhibition last year. The retail price of the limited-edition blue-and-white plates – marked with the Chinese characters for “Hong Kong”, “Kowloon” and “the New Territories” – was HK$988 at the time. Now, the set is worth HK$22,500 (including fees), and far from the affordable levels suggested by the pre-sale estimate of HK$6,000 to HK$8,000.

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Still, Edward Wilkinson, executive direc­tor of Bonhams Asia, says the same sale also saw some Asian and Western art and design pieces go for quite reasonable prices. A signed print of Wang Guangyi’s Chanel (2006) was sold for HK$13,750, including premium, and two prints by Takashi Murakami went for a total of HK$12,500.

Auction houses, though, remain big businesses that rely on selling multimillion-dollar pieces to survive. Wilkinson, himself a specialist in Southeast Asian, Indian and Himalayan art, says one of the top lots at Bonhams this week is a 13th-century Tibetan brass alloy figure of the bodhisattva Vajrapani (estimated at HK$22 million to HK$28 million), part of the collection of highly respected Swiss scholar Ulrich von Schroeder that is going under the hammer in Hong Kong. The auction, on November 29, is Bonhams’ first Himalayan art sale here and reflects growing demand among Asian collectors for a category traditionally offered mainly in New York, Wilkinson says.

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Christie’s annual autumn auctions also feature a number of highly valued Buddhist sculptures. Its top lot is a HK$30 million to HK$50 million Ming dynasty gilt bronze figure of Vajrabhairava Ekavira. In other categories, Christie’s has lined up the usual blockbuster Ming-dynasty blue-and-whites and modern Chinese paintings to appeal to its more traditional clients.

On the contemporary side, all eyes will be on Phillips on November 27, when it holds its first sale in Hong Kong of Asian and Western art and design pieces. The wide net thus cast covers a painting by in-demand Belgian painter Michaël Borremans, furniture by French designer Jean Prouvé and works by well-known Chinese painters such as Zhang Xiaogang.

Most of what’s on offer this week is still beyond the means of ordinary households. But there’s no harm in looking. You may just stumble across the perfect, and very likely unique, gift for your nearest and dearest this Christmas.

Christie’s, Bonhams, Phillips, China Guardian, Seoul Auction and Tokyo Chuo Auction all have their main autumn auctions in Hong Kong next week. Sotheby’s also has a number of sales and Tiancheng International will have its jewellery auction on December 4.