HONG KONG, Apr 18 (Reuters) The thick brush strokes, brilliant colours and angular figure of Dora Maar depicted in Pablo Picasso's 1941 painting of his mistress and a cat are a world away from the delicate detail of traditional Chinese scrolls.
Nevertheless, ''Dora Maar au Chat'' and more than two dozen other works by Western impressionist and contemporary masters like Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were on display in Hong Kong this month -- and not at a museum.
The paintings came through Hong Kong in separate travelling shows by the world's two biggest auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's, hoping to give would-be Asian art buyers a chance to see masterpieces that will go on the block in May.
While New York and London remain the undisputed global hubs of the fine art market, Hong Kong has become the heart of a fast growing Asian art market.
''Asia now is really becoming the third leg to the stool,'' said Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby's managing director for Asia. 'The fact that we bring a 50 million dollars Picasso here shows that we take this market incredibly seriously,'' he added.
Asian interest in such works, once weak, is real, said David Norman, executive vice president and co-chairman of impressionist and modern art for Sotheby's, who travelled to Hong Kong with the painting.
''We're definitely here because there are definitely people who wanted to see it, who we believed, if not based here, would be passing though here more conveniently than getting to New York,'' he said.
A few blocks away, Van Gogh's portrait ''L'Arlesienne, Madame Ginoux'' hangs in a private display room in Christie's 22nd storey office. The piece is expected to fetch more than 40 million dollars in Christie's May 2 auction in New York.
On the facing wall is a huge and pristine Picasso being sold by the artist's grandson. The side walls are adorned with smaller paintings by other greats of the era.
Ken Yeh, deputy chairman of Christie's in Asia, says the firm has tripled its investment in the region in the past three years.
''Since we've started bringing painting previews to introduce the paintings to the local collectors, we've seen really a very obvious increase of people actually bidding and buying at the auctions for impressionist modern,'' he said.
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