Asian Art Market Continues Rapid Ascent at Sotheby’s $270 M. Hong Kong Sales

Sotheby’s three live-streamed evening sales of modern and contemporary art held on Sunday and Monday night in Hong Kong brought in a hammer total of HKD 1.46 billion, or HKD 2.1 billion with premium ($269.8 million), exceeding the collective pre-sale low estimate of HKD 1.4 billion ($179 million), across 91 works sold. Seventeen of those lots were guaranteed at a collected low estimate of HKD 661.5 million ($85.2 million).

The results from this series further indicate the ascendance of the Asian market. The restructuring of the global evening sales, which now include cross-category offerings, seems to have benefited Asia most compared to other sale centers, with this spring season seeing the house’s highest estimated Hong Kong season to date.

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The three evening sales devoted to modern and contemporary art featured works by staples like Picasso, Yoshitomo Nara, and Zao Wou-Ki, and Sanyu, as well as Clyfford Still and Gerhard Richter, whose works have seen heightened success on the block in Asia in recent months.

The sale also set seven new artist records across the evening auctions. One was for a postwar artist, Chu Teh-Chun; the rest were for emerging ones such as Hajime Sorayama, Avery Singer, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, Chris Huen Sin Kan, Hajime Sorayama, and Joel Mesler.

Modern Art Performs Well, But an Antiquity Steals the Show

This season’s modern and contemporary sales opened with a curated cross-category five-lot auction on Sunday. Titled “Icons,” the sale was led by auctioneer Ian McGinlay. Its high-priced offerings, spanning Asian antiquities to modern art, achieved a total hammer price of HKD 317 million ($40.8 million), or $48 million with buyer’s premium, just above the pre-sale low estimate of HKD 292 million ($37.6 million).

The sale’s top lot was Picasso’s Buste de matador (1970), which is part of the Spanish painter’s late-career matador series. After a five-minute bidding war between buyers on the phone with Sotheby’s wine specialist Kent Law and Felix Kwok, head of modern art sale in Asia, the winning bid went to Kwok’s phone bidder, selling for a final price of HKD 140 million ($18 million with buyer’s premium), against an estimate of HKD 100 million ($12.9 million).

The result was shy of the $22.7 million price paid for the last work from the series that surfaced in a Sotheby’s. According to the painting’s provenance record, the mega-collecting Nahmad family purchased the work in 2010 from a Sotheby’s London evening sale for $7.8 million and sold it to the present seller, an American collector. The present result marks an appreciation in price of 141 percent in just over a decade since its last auction sale.

Next up was a portrait of a single reclining nude made ca. 1950s by Sanyu, the region’s top-grossing artist. Making its auction debut and offered with the same estimate as the Picasso, it received less attention than its Western counterpart. It brought in three bids between clients on the phone with Law and Kwok, hammering eventually for HKD 90 million ($11.5 million), just below the low estimate of $12.87 million, and going to Law’s client for a final price of HKD $105.8 million ($13.4 million with premium). The price is far below Sanyu’s top three most expensive works sold at auction, each of which comprises nude figures.

Also up for sale was a large-scale 11th-century stone bodhisattva sculpture that resurfaced at auction less than a year ago at Sotheby’s New York, where it was estimated at $20,000 and bought for $1.34 million. On Sunday, the Song Dynasty antiquity sold for HKD 45.7 million ($4.9 million), nearly quadrupling in price.

Chu Teh Chun, Harmonie hivernale

Chu Teh-Chun, Harmonie hivernale, 1986.

Directly after Sotheby’s cross-category sale on Sunday night, Kwok led the modern art evening sale, which saw 50 lots generate HKD $771 million ($99.2 million with buyer’s premium), realizing an 82 percent sell-through rate. Making its auction debut, the sale was led by a monumental abstract triptych made in 1986 by Chu Teh-Chun. After a 20-minute-long bidding spree between clients represented by Sotheby’s Asia chairman Patti Wong, deputy chairman Jen Hua, and Asia CEO Kevin Ching’s assistant, Harmonie hivernale hammered at HKD 198 million, going for a final price of HKD 229.6 million ($29.5 million). The result is nearly double the artist’s previous record of $14.6 million paid for the artist’s five-part abstraction Les éléments confédérés (1983–1984) at Sotheby’s this past July.

At the modern art sale, the few lots being resold at auction displayed returns that were healthy, though far less dramatic than the ones seen in the “Icons” portion. A 1959 Pierre Soulages abstraction made HKD 48 million ($6.2 million). Purchased by the seller for $4.3 million at a Sotheby’s London evening sale in October 2014, the result marks a modest 44 percent increase in value over the seven-year holding period. A Zao landscape sold for HKD 45.7 million ($5.8 million), meaning the painting’s value appreciated by 101 percent since its last sale at Sotheby’s in February 2012, when it sold for $2.88 million. Another low-value Zao from the modern art sale, this one from the 1950s, sold for HKD 15.9 million ($2 million), a 60 percent increase over the price of $1.3 million the Asia-based seller paid for it in April 2017 at Sotheby’s. 

Clyfford Still’s PH-568

Clyfford Still, PH-568, 1965.

Emerging Artists Compete for Spotlight in Contemporary Sale

In the contemporary art sale the following evening, a medley of lots by emerging artists and Western postwar figures made for a successful auction. It raked in HKD 952 million ($122.5 million), zooming past its the pre-sale low estimate of HKD $616 million ($79 million) and generating the highest total ever in Asia for a sale of its kind. The auction saw all 45 lots on offer find new buyers. Fourteen of them were guaranteed at a collected estimate of HKD $413.5 million ($53 million).

Leading the contemporary session was Clyfford Still’s PH-568 (1965). The abstraction hammered at HKD 108 million ($13.9 million), against an estimate of HKD 105 million ($13.5 million), and it was sold by Colorado-based collector and private equity firm founder J. Landis Martin, who has amassed a significant collection of Stills over several decades. Martin has been the sole owner of the work since it was purchased from Marlborough Gallery, and in 2017 he lent it to the Denver Art Museum, where he serves as a trustee, for an exhibition dedicated by both Still alongside Mark Bradford.

The second-most expensive lot of the sale was Gerard Richter’s large-scale 1985 abstraction Schwefel (Sulphur), which sold for HKD 118 million ($15.2 million), exceeding the high estimate of $12.9 million. It had been purchased by its seller in November 2018 for $12.5 million.

Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, always a favorite at Asian auctions, was among the sale’s top performers. With a LACMA retrospective now on view, Nara’s Frog Girl (1988) depicting the artist’s signature manga-style protagonist, saw a protracted period of bidding between clients on the phone in New York and Hong Kong. Hong Kong specialist Jen Hua won the bid for her client at HKD 82 million ($12.4 million with buyer’s premium), making it the third-most expensive work by the artist ever sold at auction. The seller saw a major return for the work, having purchased it for just $482,500 back in 2010, before Nara’s market took off—a staggering 2,467 percent increase in value over just a decade.

Yoshitomo Nara, Frog Girl

Yoshitomo Nara, Frog Girl, 1988.

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Emerging artists also performed well. Salman Toor’s Three Boys sold for HKD 4.5 million ($579,000), at four times its estimate of HKD 550,000 ($70,800)—a number that nearly approached his auction record. Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Eastern Entrance (2016), a portrait of a young child and a dog went for HKD 6.5 million ($832,000), against an estimate of HKD 4.5 million ($580,000), to an Asian buyer.

Robert Colescott may not be a mainstay at marquee sales, but signs that his market was on the rise could be seen in Hong Kong this week. His painting Green Glove Rapist (1971), depicting a nighttime predator breaking in through a bedroom window, hammered at HKD 3.78 million ($486,000), double the estimate of HKD 1.5 million ($193,000). The seller saw a solid return for the work tonight, having purchased it at Christie’s three years ago for $150,000. The result is still under the artist’s current record price of $912,500, set in November 2018, but the fact that it shot so far past its estimate is significant, especially in light of the house’s announcement that it plans that to auction one of his paintings for $9 million in May.

Popular Asian artists with stable markets in the region saw favorable results as well. Yayoi Kusama’s polka-dotted pumpkin I Carry on Living with Pumpkins (2013) went to an online bidder for a hammer price of HKD 13 million ($2 million with buyer’s premium), double its estimate of HKD 5.5 million ($708,000). A 1998 Liu Ye painting of a window ajar attracted competitive bids between specialists in Hong Kong. It hammered a nearly double-estimate HKD 5 million ($645,000), going to phone bidder with Sotheby’s head of contemporary art Yuki Terase.


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