Would-be buyers of Asian art at Sotheby's last week were greeted with a new message at the pre-sales exhibitions. For certain so-called Premium Lots, they were advised that they had to pre-register to bid and put down a hefty deposit. Special labels, placed right under the traditional lot information, stated: "Clients who wish to bid on this lot are required to complete the pre-registration form and to pay a deposit of $150,000."

Sotheby's said that it has required such deposits from new clients before, particularly in Hong Kong, but it has just this year begun stating it so boldly at the exhibitions in New York.

Christie's also requires deposits on some high-value lots, but lists registration and deposit requirements only in its conditions of sale.

Sotheby's won't say why it made the requirement more public, but some suggest it's a precaution following the failure of some Chinese bidders to pay at previous sales of Asian art. In the last few months the auction house has gone to court against Chinese bidders who have failed to pay.

A spokesman for Sotheby's said that the notice accompanied only 11 of the 400 lots in its Chinese Works of Art sale on Sept. 12 and six in the Chinese Paintings sale of about 150 lots on Sept. 13. The decision to ask for a deposit depends more on the preference of the consignor than on the value of the lot.

The new transparency didn't seem to dampen sales at Sotheby's: The Chinese Works of Art sale totaled $26,985,314, including the premium, exceeding the pre-sale high estimate of $21.6 million and reaching about 20% higher than last year's sale. An imperial green-hued jade seal with a carved dragon was subject to the premium. Estimated to fetch up to $600,000, it sold for $1.2 million. Another premium lot was sold by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore to benefit its acquisition funds. A jar decorated with yellow carp was expected to sell for up to $700,000 and instead fetched $1.99 million.

It was, Sotheby's said, "the highest total for a various owner Chinese Works of Art sale at Sotheby's New York in over five years." The Chinese paintings sale brought $16.5 million with just over three-quarters of the lots selling.



Photo: An Imperial Celadon Jade Ba Zheng Mao Nian Zhi Bao Seal. Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period, 2 ¼ by 2 ¼ in.