Monday, 30 January 2012

Riding the China Auction Wave

Record prices at auctions in Hong Kong used to turn heads; now the astronomical numbers are pretty much commonplace with mostly mainland Chinese buyers snapping up all kinds of things from wines and artwork to stamps, coins and rare banknotes.

Olivier Stocker, chairman and chief executive of Spink, one of the world's oldest and largest auctioneers of collectibles, says more than half the buyers in Hong Kong are from the mainland in terms of both transaction values and volumes.

"The thing that distinguishes the Chinese collector is that he or she is more aggressive than other buyers," he says. "When they want something, they don't mind bidding a bit more to get it and once they have decided to buy something, they usually get it. European buyers are usually more conservative about price."

Spink used to have a stamp auction once a year and now plans to increase it to four times a year because of demand.

Last year's Spink auction in Hong Kong raised HK$80 million ($10.31 million) worth of stamps, banknotes, bonds and shares.

There seems to be a growing interest among the mainland Chinese to acquire rare collectibles associated with the history of their homeland -- or is there?

A few media report that many of them use auctions as a way to launder money or give cash bribes to people.

For example, an official may be given a gift of say rare stamps or a painting which is then put up for auction. In some cases, a bidding war is arranged in advance to push up the price. Once it's sold, the official gets the cash.

This results in creating an inflated market or perhaps even an artificial market for items that may not really have as high or any real value.

Auction houses must know this is happening -- and this eagerness of Spink and others to hold more auctions reveals their keen interest in getting in on the market while it's super hot.

But how long will it last? When will the bubble burst?

With China experts taking its fourth quarter GDP results at 8.9 percent with a heavy dose of skepticism as all indications from electricity use to import/export numbers are down, the mainland may be in for a hard landing, but so far seems to be in denial.

We'll have to see how many more record prices we see at auction this year.


  1. is it true that these bidders use auction as a way to launder black money?