As asia’s economies bound ahead, auctioneers shift focus

┬áHONG KONG — In December, Christie’s will auction off “the Vivid Pink,” a bubble-gum-colored five-carat diamond with an estimated value of $5 million to $7 million. But instead of scheduling the sale for New York or Geneva, the city chosen was Hong Kong.

Asia’s role in the market for super high-end luxury goods is mushrooming, reflecting an underlying shift in consumer spending power that has been creeping along for years, but which received a boost from the global economic crisis.

Christie’s and its rival Sotheby’s say that in the last few years Hong Kong has emerged as a top location for sales of expensive jewelry, gems and fine wines. Asians have also become major buyers of ultraluxury goods at their auctions in London, New York and Geneva.

Christie’s clear 101-carat Shizuka diamond, for instance, sold in Hong Kong for $6.2 million in May 2008. That sale, and the one coming Dec. 1 of its big pink diamond, “are both great examples showing how important this market has become at the very top end,” said Vickie Sek, head of jewelry at Christie’s Asia.

In another telling example, Rolls-Royce, which did not even have dealerships in Asia until 2003, immediately received 20 orders for its new $250,000 Ghost when it presented the car in Hong Kong last month — despite taxes that double the price.

More broadly, household spending in developing Asian nations is expected to increase as continued growth, rising populations and improving government health and retirement safety nets reduce the need for families to save.

At the same time, many of the world’s economies are struggling to return to growth after the financial crisis. Russia and the Middle East are taking a hit from lower oil prices. And consumers in the world’s traditional spending powerhouse, the United States, are weighed down by debt and expected to be much more cautious about opening their wallets for quite some time.

“The United States is in the early stages of a multiyear retrenchment,” Stephen Roach, chairman of Morgan Stanley’s Asia operations, said in a speech last week in Hong Kong.

The result is a gradual rebalancing in spending power toward emerging nations in Asia — and China, in particular.

Japan, mired in a long economic slump, is a big exception in the region. Recently, Yohji Yamamoto, the Japanese clothing designer, filed for bankruptcy protection, and Gianni Versace, the Italian fashion brand, announced that it would close its Japanese stores.

But China, the world’s most populous nation, has already become the biggest global car market, having overtaken the United States earlier this year. And Credit Suisse forecast last month that China’s share of global consumption would overtake that of the United States by 2020.

China’s population of “high net worth individuals,” those worth $1 million or more, surpassed that of Britain for the first time last year, according to an annual study published by Capgemini and Merrill Lynch in June.

North America, Japan and Germany together still accounted for 54 percent of the global total, but the authors of the report also predicted that the Asia-Pacific region would surpass North America by 2013.

In September, a list compiled by Hurun Report, a research and publishing company based in Shanghai, found that the number of known billionaires in China had grown to 130 from 101 in 2008.

To be sure, the shift in consumption and wealth is slow, and much will depend on how quickly Asian governments manage to improve social safety networks, stimulating domestic spending.

Still, Asia has already seen a large rise in the number of individuals who can splash out in the auction halls of Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Buyers at Sotheby’s autumn sales in Hong Kong in October spent $7.9 million for fine wines — well above the $6.1 million estimate and above the $6.4 million raised at the Hong Kong spring sale.

A painting by the Chinese master Sanyu comfortably beat estimates, going for $4.7 million to a Chinese buyer bidding by telephone.

And Sotheby’s recent jewelry auction raised more than $32.6 million, up from just under $20 million a year earlier. A 28.88-carat round brilliant-cut diamond fetched $4.7 million. And a “fancy intense blue diamond” went for $5.6 million, just short of the record per-carat price for a diamond of that type, drawing applause from those in the hall.

Though some prices remained below their pre-crisis peaks, the results bode well for sales at Christie’s in December.

In the mid-1990s, Sotheby’s jewelry auctions in Hong Kong raised only about 5 percent of its total in the jewelry category, said Terry Chu, deputy head of the jewelry department at Sotheby’s in Asia.

In 2004, its Hong Kong jewelry auction raised $47 million, surpassing the Geneva auction for the first time. Since then, the Hong Kong auctions have represented about one-third of the total each year.

In December 2008, when the credit squeeze set off by the collapse of Lehman Brothers was at its most severe, Christie’s raised $33.5 million at its jewelry sale in Hong Kong, more than at any of the other jewelry auctions it held elsewhere that season.

In the world of top wines, too, Asian buyers are center stage.

Christie’s said that in the spring season, Asian buyers accounted for 61 percent of the total sales value at its New York, London and Hong Kong wine auctions. Four years earlier, the figure was 7 percent.

Its Hong Kong wine auctions, moreover, have the highest average lot price — roughly three times that in New York or London — because Christie’s puts only the rarest, most expensive vintage wines up for sale in the city, said David Elswood, Christie’s international head of wines.

The vast majority of Asian buyers, he said, fully intend to drink the wines they buy. “It’s all about prestige rather than investment,” Elswood said. “You cannot show off a wine without opening and drinking it.”

Colin Kelly, Asia-Pacific regional director at Rolls-Royce, agreed. “People here in Asia are more likely to be comfortable with showing their wealth,” he said.

The luxury carmaker sold only about 1,200 cars last year. More than 200 of those — about 90 percent of them custom — went to buyers in the Asia-Pacific region. That figure was up from only a handful in 2003.

“We expect that percentage to rise in the next few years,” Kelly said.

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