Sotheby’s third 50th-anniversary evening sale in Hong Kong on April 5 was jam-packed with ultra-contemporary works, alongside a solid offering of more established blue-chip names such as George Condo, Yayoi Kusama, and Christopher Wool, and art-historical figures such as Alexander Calder (whose mobile failed to sell).
On the one hand, the younger sought-after artists like Julien Nguyen, Lucy Bull, and Issy Wood drew robust, often intense bidding. On the other hand, at least five of the major lots were locked in with irrevocable bids by backers outside Sotheby’s, meaning they would sell no matter what. Four lots were withdrawn, according to presale announcements from the auctioneers, made first in English, and then in Chinese. The transparency was a welcome departure from recent major sales where no such advance notice was given and the auctioneers simply skipped over those lots when it came time for them on the block.
In all, the auction pulled in HK$670.8 million ($85.5 million) compared with revised presale expectations of HK$519.9 million to HK$774.4 million ($66.2 million to $98.7 million). The presale total given before the four lots were withdrawn was at a higher level of $78 million to $115 million. Of the 43 lots offered, 41 (or 95 percent) were sold.
The latest contemporary total fell under last year’s tally, which was HK$746 million ($95 million) and was also off a 2021 spring contemporary evening sale total of $122.5 million.
Despite what looked like a thin crowd in the sale room, judging from the livestream video, there did seem to be a fair amount of activity and demand online and over the phones. Perhaps this is not surprising given that hybrid sales, first introduced at the height of the pandemic in 2020, are the new norm for nearly all major auctions.
The top lot was one of Yoshitoma Nara’s signature paintings of a little girl with a large head and wide eyes, In the Milky Lake (2012), which sold for HK$100.6 million ($12.8 million) with premium (final prices include premium, estimates do not). The painting was one of the works that was backed by an irrevocable bid and it may well have gone to this bidder, given that it hammered so close to the HK$80 million ($10.1 million) low estimate via a client on the phone with Alex Branczik, senior director and chairman of modern and contemporary art for Asia.
After the auctioneer opened the bidding on the Nara at HK$75 million ($9.5 million), Branczik jumped it to HK$85 million ($10.8 million) in a single bid, a larger increment than was seen elsewhere in the sale, albeit at a higher price point. The move also suggested the bidder was determined to have it.
The next two highest lots were from Japanese star Yayoi Kusama, one a sculpture, the other a painting, and both featuring some of her most famous images, polka-dotted pumpkins. The painting, A-Pumpkin (BAGN8) (2011), sold for HK$55.2 million ($7 million), while the sculpture, Pumpkin (L) (2014), sold for HK$62.6 million ($7.9 million). The enthusiastic reception for Kusama coincides with “Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now,” an exhibition now on view at the M+ in West Kowloon Cultural District, the largest Kusama retrospective in Asia outside Japan.
Meanwhile, a Kusama Infinity Room, titled My Heart is Flying to the Universe (2018), sold for HK$25.8 million ($3.3 million), and an Infinity Net Painting, Infinity Nets (QNTBH) (2006), sold for HK$24 million ($3 million), reflecting the broad interest in her work and what Branczik described as “a global phenomenon.” He further noted the viral popularity of the recently launched Louis Vuitton campaign featuring Kusama’s signature polka dots. Nara falls in the same camp as far as “transcending the Asian market,” Branczik added.
Another top price and a new artist record at auction was the HK$52.3 million ($6.6 million) paid for Matthew Wong’s River at Dusk (2018), which was also backed by a third-party guarantee. Prices for paintings by Wong, a Canadian artist who died by suicide in 2019, have soared in the years since his death. This painting is another classic example of flipping and speculation in his work. According to the provenance, it was acquired from Karma Gallery and was in a private collection before it was flipped to auction just a year after Wong’s death, at Phillips/Poly Hong Kong in December 2020, where it made HK$37.8 million ($4.8 million). Tonight, it was back on the auction block after less than three years, and the price was 27 percent higher from where it was less than three years ago.
“Obviously, 10 years ago, for our 40th anniversary celebrations, there wasn’t a single western artist in the evening sale,” said Branczik. “The bulk and the value of interest was driven by Chinese contemporary artists. We’ve had waves of interest in Japanese Gutai and Dansaekhwa Korean artists, whereas, increasingly, the collecting trends in Asia today are following the same global trends that we see in New York and London. The challenge and opportunity is, ‘how to do we continue to give the Hong Kong sales a unique identity vis a vis London and New York?’”
A large four-part panting by Gerhard Richter, Abstrakte Bilder (in 4 parts) (1992), was also among the top lots, selling for HK$36.7 million ($4.7 million).
In addition to Wong, auction records were set for mostly younger artists including Pang Jiun ($1.1 million), Loie Hollowell ($2.3 million), Hao Liang ($3.1 million), and Rafa Macarron. The contemporary sale wrapped with an offer of an NFT, Six N Five’s The Red Spot, which sold for HK$1.7 million ($210,321).
Prior to the contemporary sale, Sotheby’s offered a major single lot auction, Zhang Daqian’s Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen, which sold for HK$251.6 million ($32 million). It was followed by a modern art auction that saw an 86 percent sell-through rate. Highlights included Picasso’s portrait of Françoise Gilot, Femme dans un fauteuil, that sold for HK$93 million ($11.9 million).
And four works by Zao Wou-Ki sold for a combined total of HK$132.5 million ($16.9 million), led by Apres l’eclipse, 11.08.99 (1999), which sold for HK$48.9 million ($6.2 million)
Branczik noted that in 2022, one-third of bidders in Hong Kong sales were new to Sotheby’s and that globally more than two-thirds of new bidders to Sotheby’s were Asian. “Put those two stats together and you see just why having an auction platform in Asia is so crucial for any auction house.”
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