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Art, Gems Vie for Auction Supremacy

Art, Gems Vie for Auction Supremacy
By Jason Chow

The Wall Street Journal

Pity the diamonds. Lately, contemporary art has outshone expensive gems at the auction houses.

This month, the frenzy of a Christie’s contemporary art sale in New York was capped by the $142.4 million sale of Francis Bacon’s triptych of Lucian Freud, which became the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. In comparison, the sale of two major diamonds in Geneva last week brought what almost looked like chump change, even with a 24.78-carat pink diamond realizing $83 million at Sotheby’s and a 14.82-carat orange diamond fetching $35.5 million at Christie’s.

This week in Hong Kong, art will likely out-glitter the gems again. The most talked-about item at Christie’s fall auction in the city is "Hospital Triptych No. 3" by Zeng Fanzhi, which is slated for an evening sale of 20th-century and contemporary Asian art on Saturday. In October, Mr. Zeng’s "The Last Supper" sold for $23.3 million, a record for an Asian contemporary work at auction.
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Considered an early masterpiece for Mr. Zeng, the triptych, which depicts three hospital scenes, was completed in 1992, shortly after the artist graduated from art school. Christie’s declined to give an estimate.

Jewelry will take over the Christie’s stage on Tuesday, with rare rubies leading. A ring dubbed "The Regal Ruby," estimated to fetch up to $7.3 million, features a 13.21-carat Burmese ruby flanked by half-moon diamonds. 

While contemporary art has been the center of attention recently, people in the jewelry trade say they have no reason to be shy. 

"Contemporary art is still the top category, but jewelry is exploding, too," said Rahul Kadakia, a Christie’s jewelry specialist based in Geneva. The segment makes up about 10% of overall global sales at the auction house, he said. 

Contemporary and modern art didn’t always outsell precious stones in Hong Kong. At its autumn 2008 sale, Christie’s sold $33.7 million worth of jewelry, roughly the same sum as all its Asian contemporary and 20th-century art sales combined. 

This April, the jewelry category reaped $82.6 million during Christie’s spring sales in Hong Kong. The 20th-century and contemporary Asian art categories fetched $97.3 million.

Still, the growth in jewelry sales in Hong Kong has pushed the city to rank second after Geneva as a center for the fine-gem auction trade. 

Asia’s new moneyed class are a different breed of jewelry collector, experts say. While many buyers in the West seek the biggest stones, the Asian buyer typically seeks the highest-quality stones—the greatest clarity with the fewest imperfections is most desirable. 

"Asian ladies are petite, so they look for petite jewelry," Mr. Kadakia said. "They’re not always looking for size in the stones."

Paul Redmayne-Mourad, Asia development manager for English jeweler David Morris, said Asian buyers are becoming increasingly interested in colored diamonds, rubies and emeralds. 

"Two years ago, the mainland Chinese buyers were just getting into big white diamonds and didn’t know anything about the colored ones," Mr. Redmayne-Mourad said. "Now, they’re so sophisticated and savvy. They’re like amateur gemologists." He added that many of his clients who buy jewelry at auction remove the precious stones from the items and have them reset in custom-designed jewelry. 

Christie’s five-day sales event—featuring wine, watches, and Chinese art and antiques—will be the focal point for collectors. But smaller rival houses also will be holding sales. 

English firm Bonhams on Thursday started the most diverse sale among the auction houses, peddling wine, whiskey, contemporary Asian art, Chinese paintings, antiques, snuff bottles, Leica cameras and pens. 

Its jewelry sale is led by a pendant with a 5.26-carat yellow diamond in the middle, surrounded by several smaller white diamonds, totaling 3.55 carats, as well as several emeralds. It is estimated to sell for as much as $350,000.

"Many people feel that a diamond is more like an investment rather than a painting on the wall," said Graeme Thompson, Bonhams’ jewelry specialist. "It’s a security blanket."

Tiancheng International will hold sales of Chinese ink paintings and Chinese contemporary art on Monday. The most expensive item: a Zhang Daqian painting, titled "Scholar Under the Sycamore," which is estimated to realize up to US$387,000.

Tiancheng, a Hong Kong firm that started in 2011, will hold its jewelry sale on Dec. 8. The company last year sold a jadeite necklace for $13.7 million, a record price for a jadeite item sold at auction. This season, the firm will put up the jadeite "Fortune Melon" pendant—fashioned in the shape of a small gourd—which it said is worth as much as $4.6 million. 

On Sunday, Seoul Auction will hold a sale of Western and Asian artists, led by Jeff Koons’s "Mound of Flowers," which is estimated to sell for as much as $3.3 million.