HONG KONGHONG KONG (Reuters) - A rare Chinese Ming dynasty gold tripod vessel encrusted with gems sold for HK$116.8 million ($14.8 million) at a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong on Friday, breaking the record for any Chinese metalwork.

It was one of several records broken during Sotheby's sales of Qing and Ming artwork and imperial porcelain.

While bidding was sluggish for mid-tier items, the results suggest demand for top flight Chinese art remains healthy, partly boosted by a surge in art spending by newly minted Chinese millionaires drawn to their cultural heritage and quick profits.

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The gold tripod vessel, studded with pearls and rubies and engraved with dragons, is believed to be one of only eight surviving examples of a gold vessel from the early imperial Ming court. It was bought by a Western buyer after stiff bidding.

"This is possibly the finest piece of Ming gold in private hands," said Nicolas Chow, Sotheby's international head of Chinese ceramics and works of art.

"It's very powerful with the most obvious symbol of imperial power; the five-clawed dragon," Chow added of the piece from the Xuande period of the Ming dynasty.

A gold, cloisonne and enamelled Tibetan-style ewer from the Qianlong period (1736-1795) also set a world record for Qing gold at auction, fetching HK$56.3 million ($7.1 million).

The exquisitely decorated ewer with painted enamel panels, a gold handle and spout issuing from the mouth of a dragon and inlaid with precious stones, was bought by an Asian buyer.

The rare gold pieces were mostly consigned from a Scandinavian collection of Chinese precious metalwork formed in the first half of the 20th century by Swedish industrialist Johan Carl Kempe.

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For Chinese ceramics, the top lot was a sublime blue-hued crackled "Guan" mallet vase from the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) which was hammered off for HK$67.5 million ($8.5 million), a world record auction price for a Song dynasty ceramic.

Despite the banner items, a conspicuous number of lesser lots went unsold, amid a sense that valuations had been set too high.

"I think the owners (sellers) were too optimistic basically," said Philip Constantinidi, a buyer with renowned London-based dealer Eskenazi, who bought several ceramic pieces at the sale.

"They can see that the market's been rising over the past two years, and they think if I ask a little bit more maybe it will rise even further, but it doesn't always happen," he added.

Top Taiwanese collector Calvin Lu, who underbid for the Song mallet vase, spoke of a subdued mood among some art buyers.

"I hesitated a bit, perhaps because the auction tempo was a bit slow, like it wasn't that hot," said the Taiwan businessman.

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"I think the top items had good results, but the middle quality pieces didn't do so well. Overall, I think the economic climate has had an impact," he added.