By Adam Rose
BEIJING (Reuters) - A work by modern painter Zao Wou-ki sold for 76 million yuan ($12.47 million) on Sunday at Sotheby's first major auction in China, breaking the record for the artist's work set earlier this year in Hong Kong.
"I'm very, very thrilled," Sotheby's Asia CEO Kevin Ching told Reuters after the event. Zao, who's known for his abstract style, "will become, or may already be, the Picasso of China," he said.
Sotheby's held the auction as competition between the New York-based auction house and its long-time rival Christie's moves into one of the world's hottest art markets amid a government crackdown on corruption and luxury spending.
Sotheby's and its local joint venture partner, Beijing Gehua Art Company, offered a slate of modern and contemporary Chinese works with a total estimated value of more than 123 million yuan ($20.19 million) as part of "Beijing Art Week".
The record-breaking cover lot, Zao Wou-Ki's "Abstraction" was estimated to be worth 35 to 45 million yuan ($5.74-$7.39 million). The final price of sale reported by Sotheby's was 89.68 million yuan ($14.72 million), which includes an 18 percent fee paid to Sotheby's by the buyer.
The buyer was identified by Sotheby's as Zhang Xiaojun, a collector from coal-rich Shanxi province.
Another Zao painting estimated to be worth 4-6 million yuan ($656,500 to $984,700) went for 38 million yuan ($6.24 million). A third painting by Zao failed to sell.
Sotheby's has not said whether it sold a $50 million Rembrandt, "Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo," which was part of one of the accompanying selling exhibitions.
Sunday's auction featured more than 100 lots, including canvases by some of China's most renowned oil and ink painters, as well as three selling exhibitions with a selection of diamonds and European furniture and art.
Because the sales took place in the Tianzhu Free Trade Zone, buyers will not be forced to pay roughly 25 percent in tax and customs duties on imported works unless they wish to bring them into China proper. The privileges of the zone, which is near the airport, were temporarily transferred to a luxury hotel in downtown Beijing where the event was held.
($1 = 6.0932 Chinese yuan)
(This story has been corrected to fix the fee charged by Sotheby's to 18 percent in the 5th paragraph.)
(Editing by Matt Driskill)