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Sotheby's fine Chinese painting sale bucks rocky markets

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Demand for classical and fine Chinese paintings was relatively robust at Sotheby's Hong Kong Asia sales on Tuesday despite signs of softening demand for Asian and Chinese contemporary art amid recent financial market volatility.

Sotheby's biannual sales are considered a bellwether of the burgeoning Asian and Chinese art market with Hong Kong now rivaling London and New York as a global art auction hub, propelled by waves of affluent Chinese and regional buyers.

Bidding was brisk at times for some 360 lots of fine Chinese paintings including ink brush landscapes, centuries-old scrolls, calligraphy and folding fans, even as the Hong Kong stock market fell nearly four percent for a second consecutive day.

A Qi Baishi ink painting "Rabbits and Osmanthus" made HK$6.2 million ($796,224), nearly five times its estimate while works by old masters Fu Baoshi, Zhang Daqian and Wu Changshuo also did well.

"What we can see is that in spite of the volatility in the stock market, there's still very strong demand for quality works," Patti Wong, Sotheby's Asia Chairman told Reuters.

Whilst the Asian contemporary sales in Hong Kong saw around a fifth of works go unsold, the fine Chinese paintings sale only saw around 5 percent of lots failing to find buyers, in an auction hall dominated by mainland Chinese buyers.

During the 2008/09 financial crisis the once red-hot Chinese contemporary market corrected sharply, but more traditional collecting categories like Chinese imperial ceramics and classic paintings maintained their value far better, with top lots continuing to fetch record prices.

"Classical Chinese paintings aren't affected by the economic situation," said Tan Guobing, a Chinese dealer from Changsha in south-central China who bought a Huang Binhong ink landscape for HK$4.34 million amid stiff bidding. "The number of rich people in China keeps growing."

Amongst the highlights was Wu Guanzhong's "Gezhou Dam," a work of stark lines and colorful dots that made HK$20.2 million, more than twice its estimate, as well as Zhang Daqian's "White Dove and Red Leaves" that fetched HK$18.02 million ($2.3 million) while Xu Beihong's languid depiction of a pair of resting buffaloes also made HK$18.02 million.

"Considering what's happening in the stock market we came here to bargain hunt --- but it didn't quite work," said one Hong Kong buyer at the sale who declined to be named.

Sotheby's will sell off the second part of a renowned old European "Meiyintang" collection of Chinese ceramics and objets d'art on Wednesday that will be closely scrutinized for signs of potential weakness in this core Asian collecting sector.

(Reporting by James Pomfret, editing by Paul Casciato)

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