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Asia comes down off its auction high

The fine wine auction market has been shifting in recent years, depending on where the wine is sourced, where it’s sold and which corner of the world has the deepest pockets.

David Elswood in action at Christie's Spring Hong Kong sale (2014)  Credit: Christies images Ltd 2010
David Elswood in action at Christie’s Spring Hong Kong sale (2014)
Credit: Christie’s images Ltd 2010

In the 1990’s Christie’s pioneered the first sales in Asia, mainly in Tokyo and Singapore, and occasionally Hong Kong. The firm pulled out in 2001 and then, like the other big auction houses, jumped back in in 2008 when duty rates were slashed and Hong Kong became the region’s tax free hub.

“We saw a massive jump, and the market hit its peak in 2011/12, when we were doing maybe 70% of our business in Asia,” said David Elswood, head of Christie’s wine department who sees it settling at around 40 – 50%.

It has been a similar story at Sotheby’s. “It is down off its high, and the Asian market is cooling a little,” confirmed Jamie Ritchie, head of Sotheby’s Wine Americas & Asia. “But let’s bear in mind it’s still 55% of what we sell globally by value. Hong Kong bought more than four times any other Asian region and represented 20% of what we sold from New York and 40% of what we sold from London.”

Ritchie believes the three fine wine auction hubs of London, New York and Hong Kong are equally important. “What influences sales is where you offer the property and where it’s sourced. There is still more wine to be sold coming out of North America and Europe than lying in Asia.” He added: “As pricing becomes more consistent between London, Hong Kong and New York, you’ll see New York sales begin to rise back up again, because we’re not shipping so much wine to Asia for sale.”

In 2014, Sotheby’s sale totals were US$28.8 million in Hong Kong, up 13% on the previous year, followed by US$21.1m in London (+6%) and New York on US$15.4m (+23%).

Richard Harvie MW, international director of fine & rare wines at Bonhams, agreed. “I think an awful lot of wine sold through London goes out to the States and the Far East, and it’s one way traffic – what’s sold in the US and Hong Kong doesn’t come back to London.”

Straddling the time zones between Asia and the US may benefit London-based auctions just like the City of London in the financial sector, but the bidding is increasingly by internet and phone. “The saleroom has become pretty dull,” said Harvie. “At a London sale you’re lucky to see more than a dozen people, and the majority of the action is on the screen in front of the auctioneer.”

From his experience at Christie’s, Elswood felt that: “if you split the market by value of lot, those at the top end – say over £20,000, would be skewed to Asia.” He added that interest there is: “broadening into Champagne, top Italians and top Spanish wines. It’s not just about DRC and trophy wines.” But he agreed about the low-key nature of London sales and also New York, describing both as: “much more sober and carefully considered with no-one getting carried away.” This is comparison to Hong Kong where wine auctions are still “much more buzzy, and there’s a personal, competitive element among bidders,” said Elswood.

 Château Mouton Rothschild - at Bonham's London sale (Dec 4th 2014)
Château Mouton Rothschild – at Bonham’s London sale (4 December 2014)

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