Hopes were high as the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong approached on April 19. Asia last year proved to be a saving grace for the locked art industry, overtake the United States as the largest auction market in the world. The latest test for the Asian market suggests demand remains broad and dynamic, but not frothy. The sale of 45 lots totaled 952 million Hong Kong dollars ($ 122.5 million), a record for a contemporary art sale at Sotheby’s Asia, according to the house.
The lineup was full of international names, from sought-after young stars like Salman Toor, Matthew Wong and Avery Singer, to more established figures like Dana Schutz and Yoshitomo Nara, to top-notch masters like Clyfford Still and Roy Lichtenstein. There were also a lot of high profile Chinese art stars such as Zeng Fanzhi and Zhang Xiaogang.
Led by Sotheby’s Hong Kong auctioneer and senior manager Ian Mcginlay, the sale followed the same format as the house’s other major evening sales over the past year, with a hybrid auction structure in direct and virtual (including an audience of IRL bidders in Hong Kong). Additional offers were sent by telephone banking specialists in London and New York as well as online.
New records were set for Toor, which was recently the subject of a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum (Three boys sold for 5.6 million Hong Kong dollars / 723,182 dollars, more than seven times its high estimate), and for Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai-Violet Hwami (Skye weNehanda got 3.8 million Hong Kong dollars / 486,410 dollars). Asian collectors set new records for Joel Mesler (HK $ 1.5 million / $ 194,564), Avery Singer (HK $ 6.7 million / $ 863,314) and Toyin Ojih Odutola, according to Sotheby’s .
Much of the house’s success was orchestrated in advance, as 14 of the lots included financial guarantees from third parties.
Although Sotheby’s reported that the sale was white glove, meaning that every lot sold, it declined to mention that the 46th lot – a work by Handiwirman Saputra – had been withdrawn just before the auction ended (probably because there was not enough interest, but saving the house an officially unsold lot). Other than that hiccup, the sale went smoothly, except when one lot reopened after a late London bid hit the airwaves. (Considering the elaborate technology involved in making these hybrid sales, it’s surprising there weren’t more issues.)
The first lot of the sale was the summary of Still PH-568 (1965), which carried a third-party guarantee and sold for HK $ 126 million ($ 16.2 million) on a single offer to a customer over the phone with Fine Arts President Amy Cappellazzo at New York. The second highest prize was HK $ 118 million ($ 15.2 million) for a summary by Gerhard Richter, Schwefel (Sulfur) (1985).
Another great lot was that of Roy Lichtenstein Thoughts on Thud! (1990), which sold to a client bidding with Hong Kong Senior Manager Yuki Terase for a hammer price of HK $ 94 million ($ 12 million).
The star of tonight’s sale was Japanese sensation Yoshitomo Nara, whose market is skyrocketing after the reopening of his major retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Of the three Naras offered, the most expensive was Frog girl (1998), which sold for HK $ 96.3 million ($ 12 million), exceeding his estimate of HK $ 40 million to HK $ 80 million.
The contest boiled down to a three-way bidding war between two Hong Kong specialists and a New York specialist over the phone with their respective clients. One of the Hong Kong specialists won it on a bid of 82 million Hong Kong dollars ($ 10.5 million).
In particular, the sale boasted of a particular depth of auction for young artists whose work is particularly difficult to secure on the primary market. Start (2017), a painting by the late Canadian artist Matthew Wong, sold for HK $ 26.8 million ($ 3.4 million), more than four times its high estimate.
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