Lloyd Webber sale shines light on Asia wine market

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British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's multi-million dollar wine collection goes under the hammer in Hong Kong this weekend, underlining the eastward shift in the global wine and luxury markets.

After realising he couldn't drink his vast wine collection himself, the "Cats" and "Phantom of the Opera" composer decided that Asia's ever-growing army of ultra-wealthy connoisseurs might fancy buying some of it.

Serena Sutcliffe, head of wine at Sotheby's, which is running the auction, said the Lloyd Webber sale underlines Asia's rise on the global wine scene. The collection could raise over $4million.

Collectors come from countries across the region, including Taiwan, Singapore and Indonesia, "although at the top end there are some really heavy hitters from mainland China," she said.

"People are buying all sorts of luxury brands here."

John Kapon, chief executive of wine auctioneer Acker Merrall & Condit, which is hosting another $9 million sale in Hong Kong this week, said the firm's business is about 65 percent Asian-based, up from 25 percent three years ago.

"Part of the reason is that wine is a status symbol", he told AFP. "Some people just want to buy the best."

Hong Kong is the world's third-largest auction centre after New York and London, thanks in large part to China's rapidly growing number of millionaires.

Mainland Chinese are regular buyers of the top lots at sales of art, jewellery and wine, and Hong Kong has positioned itself as a wine hub for Asia as well as the gateway to China's vast market.

"Much of the business has been centred in Hong Hong due to its central location, the international nature of the city, and the high concentration of wealthy and successful people here", Kapon said.

Last year, Sotheby's alone sold about $52 million worth of fine wine in the former British colony, more than twice as much as their wine sales in London and three times as much as New York.

But unlike their Western counterparts, many Asian collectors don't buy pricey wines to keep the bottles hidden away in a dusty cellar.

"A lot of corks are being pulled", Sutcliffe told AFP. "They're consuming the most expensive wines here. Much more than in other places."

Sutcliffe puts this bottle-opening trend down to Asia's "tradition of hospitality" and the desire to impress business associates, a crucial ingredient for getting deals done.

The huge wealth Webber's smash hit musicals, which also include "Evita" and "Jesus Christ Superstar", brought the composer meant he could afford to indulge his taste for super exclusive wines.

He has previously said he decided to part with some of his collection after realising it was possible to have too much of a good thing.

"The trouble is if you once fall in love with wine, you are not necessarily rational," he told The Wall Street Journal.

"Somebody will ring up and say, Andrew, for God's sake, there is a really good parcel of so and so I think you should buy,' and I always say yes.

"But there comes a time when you ask, Am I realistically going to drink this all myself?' And over the last few years there has been a realisation that I am not going to get through all of it."

In all, 747 lots from Lloyd Webber will be auctioned off on Saturday at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, including 21 cases of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2005 and four cases of Chateau Haut Brion 1989.

The collection's large supply of top-end French wines is a huge plus, as they are popular among Asian and particularly Chinese collectors due to their "proven reputation", Sutcliffe added.

"It's a great collection and an obvious one for Hong Kong because there is a great love of French wines such as Bordeaux and Burgundy. It happens to be a category appreciated so much in this region."

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