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Hong Kong unrest could rattle big auctions

Trouble in the streets could disrupt a big series of art and collectible auctions in Hong Kong over the next few weeks.

Christie's and Sotheby's are scheduled to hold at least 17 auctions in Hong Kong in the coming weeks, selling everything from diamonds and watches to wine, porcelain and contemporary art. The sales are part of the city's highly anticipated fall auctions and were expected to once again solidify Hong Kong's place as a new global auction hub.

Yet the growing street protests could unnerve possible buyers and possibly even force the auction houses to change the events.

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Thousands of rich collectors from Asia, China and other countries were expected to descend on the city in October and November for the big auction weeks and spend hundreds of millions of dollars and mingle with dealers, advisors and sellers at the Hong Kong Convention And Exhibition Center and other locations.

During the spring sales, Christie's and Sotheby's sold more than $800 million combined.

A protester covers his face as riot police fire teargas after thousands of demonstrators blocked the main street to the financial district Central in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Tyrone Siu | Reuters
A protester covers his face as riot police fire teargas after thousands of demonstrators blocked the main street to the financial district Central in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.

Sotheby's has nine sales scheduled for October, kicking off with a wine sale on Oct. 4, and ending with a sale of collectible watches on Oct. 8. It's also holding modern and contemporary art sales on Oct. 5 and 6, as well as a 20th Century Chinese Art sale on on Oct. 6.

Among its most high-profile offerings for the month is an 8.41 carat purple-pink diamond that could fetch between $13 million and $15 million at a jewel sale on Oct. 7. The wine saleauctioning off bottles from the collection of Internet tycoon James H. Clarkis expected to fetch between $4.5 million and $6.7 million.

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Sotheby's said so far it hasn't changed any of its auction plans.

"Despite some logistical challenges, we do not anticipate that the current situation will impact our exhibitions or sales, but, of course, we are closely monitoring events," the company said in a statement.

Christie's big sales are in November, but its previews—which are when collectors can see the work in person—are being held from Oct. 4 through Oct. 6. So far the auction house hasn't announced any change of plans or contingencies.

Christie's had nearly $1 billion in sales in Asia last year, with Hong Kong being the main Asian sales hub, the company said.

For now, art dealers and advisors are sounding confident, saying the protests may prove short-lived and controlled.

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"So far the protests have been peaceful," said Annelien Bruins, chief operating officer and senior art advisor at Tang Art Advisory, which counsels art collectors around the world, including in Hong Kong and China. "We're not yet worried."

Buyers at the Hong Kong auctions are increasingly global, coming from Europe and the U.S. as well as China, Hong Kong and the rest of Asia, so they may be less sensitive to the local unrest. Bidders also increasingly buy through dealers or the phone, so they don't have to brave the street protesters.

Unrest and political instability can even benefit the art market, as the wealthy look for safe stores of value that they can quickly move offshore.

Still, it remains to be seen whether the Chinese and Hong Kong rich will be in the mood to spend millions on paintings and diamonds while protesters are getting tear-gassed on the streets. Financial markets and currencies in Asia also have taken a spill, which could reduce the fortunes (and spending confidence) of potential buyers.

"Financial markets tend to be more sensitive to these events than the art market," Bruins said.