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Would you buy a US$7 million Picasso that you've never seen?

[HONG KONG] Everything you can imagine is real, Pablo Picasso said. Tonight in Hong Kong, you can buy one of his artworks for upwards of US$7 million. You may just have to imagine what it really looks like.

The inaugural sale of Dragon 8 Auctions is offering works by Picasso, Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali at the Grand Hyatt Hotel to bidders who are prepared to fork out seven-figure sums for works that are locked safely away in a Swiss vault.

The company, just a few months old, hasn't even put the images up on its website. Instead, life-sized photographs of the paintings, framed in unvarnished wood, were on show at the preview in the hotel on Nov 18, where VIPs could sample wines and whiskys listed for auction and view the sale's diamonds.

"The owners want to maintain their privacy," said Scott Murphy, creative director at Dragon 8. "They said 'we are allowing you to sell these paintings, but don't you dare disseminate any information about them to the public.'" Potential buyers can see images of Dali's 1960 oil portrait and more than 350 other lots in the catalog, over 1,000 of which were distributed to select clients.

Except the Picasso. The Spanish artist's 1965 work, with an estimate of US$7 million to US$9 million, wasn't included because the seller was still vacillating when the catalog went to print, said Mr Murphy.

An insert, handed out at the preview, says the painting was bought by the present owner from Berlin-based Galerie Michael Haas in 2000. The painting failed to sell at a Sotheby's auction in London in 1999, when it had a low estimate of 600,000 pounds (S$1.3 million) according to the Artnet database.

Dragon 8 is the brainchild of founder Gil Lempert-Schwarz, who most recently worked as global wine consultant to Acker Merrall & Condit, and says he has extensive contacts with owners of art and jewelry.

The former art-gallery owner comes across as an iconoclast happy to take risks in the stodgy world of luxury auctions.  One of the lots, for example, consists of 120 bottles of Chateau Latour 2000, worth about HK$900,000 (S$163,998), with an opening bid of HK$10 and no reserve price. "The consignor told me, 'I don't mind if you mess around with them in the market and see what happens,"' Mr Lempert-Schwarz said.

He said the provenance of all the items on offer is detailed in the catalog and that he has arranged private viewings in Europe for clients, one of whom took a private plane to see the Warhol.

"Obviously the pieces wouldn't be sold if they didn't exist," Mr Lempert-Schwarz said. "In our situation, people are a lot more discreet. Guys on the buying side like this discretion."

He's charging buyers an 18.88 per cent premium on purchases, several percentage points lower than Christie's and Sotheby's, who hold their big Hong Kong sales across the road in the convention center. He says he conservatively expects to take in "north of HK$200 million across all categories."

Other lots include a rare cask of Glenfiddich whisky with a pre-auction estimate of US$580,000 to US$800,000 and a ring with a 20.41-carat diamond estimated at US$1.6 million to US$1.88 million.

Asked why he didn't just sell the paintings privately, Mr Lempert-Schwarz said: "Hong Kong people like an auction, and betting against others and winning. Nobody would buy this if it was at a private sale."