Unexpected results reveal hidden trends at Sotheby’s Hong Kong 2014?

Sotheby’s 2014 Contemporary Asian Art Spring sale produced mixed results, with some artworks surpassing their estimates but certain unexpected passes too.

Sotheby’s Contemporary Asian Art Sale on 6 April 2014 presented work in a wider range of media compared to previous years’ sales, a gamble which resulted in success but also in the occasional surprising failure to sell, uncovering trends among Chinese collectors right now.

Daido Moriyama, 'Stray Dog', (executed 1971 - printed 2007), gelatin silver print, 100 x 126.8 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Daido Moriyama, ‘Stray Dog’, (executed 1971 – printed 2007), gelatin silver print, 100 x 126.8 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

“Slow but fierce” was the phrase used by the auctioneer to describe the bidding for one lot at Sotheby’s day sale of Contemporary Asian Art, held on 6 April 2014 in Hong Kong. The contradictory term could have been applied to the results of the entire sale, which saw record-breakers but also a few unexpected passes.

Some lots more than doubled their estimates, including a surprise hit for Wang Jianwei and the top sale of the auction for Zhang Enli. But these successes were mixed in with no-sales from the likes of Liu Wei and Fang Lijun, leaving the way clear for Japanese artists and Chinese contemporary photographers from the Ullens Collection, which proved popular with young collectors.

Contemporary Asian Art: Sale facts and figures

The Contemporary Asian Art Sale encompassed over 230 lots comprising Chinese and Japanese artists, covering a wide range of media including painting, ink, sculpture and photography. The sale achieved a total of USD15,441,827 (HKD120,446,250). This total, which includes the buyer’s premium and all fees, comes in under Sotheby’s 2013 Spring Contemporary Asian sale, which totalled USD24.9 million (HKD194.5 million) including the buyer’s premium.

Zhang Enli, 'Dancing No. 2', 2000, oil on canvas, 215.2 x 147.4 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Zhang Enli, ‘Dancing No. 2’, 2000, oil on canvas, 215.2 x 147.4 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

The top 10 estimated lots

Sotheby's 2014 top ten

Exceeding expectations… or remaining unsold

The first half of the sale was an active and continuous battle between in-room and on-the-phone bids, as pieces from established Chinese artists were auctioned. The highlights from the ten high estimate pieces were Zhang Enli’s Dancing N°2 (2000) which sold for USD856,228 (HKD6,640,000), buyer’s premium included, close to doubling its estimate and taking the top price of the day. The work, an oil on canvas showing a raucous dance floor from a bird’s eye perspective, is typical of much of Enli’s work. The artist often deals with everyday scenes of human life in China, veering away from overt political or pop-cultural posturing.

Zeng Fanzhi’s Landscape (2005) came in second, with a hammer price of USD 701,488 (HKD5,440,000), within its estimate. In third position, Zhang Peili’s X? Series (1987) went under the hammer for USD546,748 (HKD4,240,000), doubling its estimate. All final prices include the buyer’s premium.

The surprise of the auction came from Wang Jianwei’s Hollow Bricks (1990), which sold for USD345,586 (HKD2,680,000), fetching over HKD2 million more than its estimate. The sale followed a stand-off between an in-room collector who fought against a bidder on the phone. The auctioneer described this moment as “slow and fierce” and applause broke out after the hammer fell.

However, a minority of Chinese artists with high estimate prices did not perform as well as hoped, with many pieces from the same artist unsold. Liu Wei sold only five out of nine lots, the four unsold pieces being two oil paintings, one charcoal and gouache on paper, and one oil on paper. Fang Lijun also came in under expectations, with several oils on paper failing to sell and others fetching under estimate. Both artists sold well in the same sale in 2013, when they were auctioned as part of the Hirsch collection; this year’s results could indicate a recent change in buying tastes.

Nobuyoshi Araki, '6x7 Hangeki Series', 2007, photograph, 123.8 x 99.4 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Nobuyoshi Araki, ‘6×7 Hangeki Series’, 2007, photograph, 123.8 x 99.4 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Japanese art pleases the crowds

Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, known for his depictions of simultaneously sweet and devilish children, did not fail to disappoint once again at the day sale, as Missing Mariana Suni Christina (Four Works) (2005) sold for USD484,852 (HKD3,760,000), Nara’s top sale of the auction.

Masaru Shichinohe, whose paintings depict dark and surreal landscapes, caused an on-the-phone bidding war for Rainbow Cocktail, The Post Box, The Flying Ship (2000), a triptych that eventually sold for USD64,475 (HKD500,000), easily exceeding the estimate of HKD80,000-120,000.

Contemporary ink sells strongly 

The contemporary ink section of the auction garnered much attention and active bidding, with all the artworks selling above their price estimates. Artists Gu Wenda and Qiu Zhijie were once again successful, both doubling their estimates. A ping-pong bidding game took place between two in-room and on-the-phone bidders for Zhang Jian’s Landscape Palm (1999), which almost tripled its estimate to reach USD77,370 (HKD600,000).

Nonetheless, Tsang Tsou-Choi (The King of Kowloon) stole the spotlight with King’s Maps (Two works (2001-2004), which exceeded its estimate of HKD60,000-80,000, selling for USD72,534 (HKD562,500). The concentrated attention given from online, over the phone and in-room bidders demonstrates Chinese ink’s strong appeal to Chinese collectors.

Ai Weiwei, 'Table with Three Legs', 2009, wood, 16 x 116 x 116 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Table with Three Legs’, 2009, wood, 16 x 116 x 116 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Chinese Photography exceeds estimates

Finally, Chinese contemporary photography from the Ullens Collection, received interest from bidders over the phone, in the room and online, possibly tempted by initially low estimates on most works.

Yang Fudong‘s The First Intellectual (2000), the first lot to be auctioned from this section, sold for USD190,846 (HKD1,480,000), exceeding its estimate by more than HKD1,000,000. Beijing-based artist Wang Qingsong’s work Follow Me sold for the same price, almost triple its estimate.

At first, however, the bidding on the photographs was slow and hesitant, perhaps indicating a certain degree of caution among collectors.

Chinese collectors outnumber internationals

The strong regional demand for Chinese contemporary art was demonstrated by the large number of East Asian collectors attending the five-day sales. This group were the main lot purchasers during the evening and day auctions held on 5 and 6 April. Bloomberg states that out of the top ten lots, nine were purchased by Asians during the evening sale on 5 April, “suggesting that the slowing economic growth in China hasn’t damped regional demand for art.

Zhang Xiaogang, 'Bloodline Big Family No. 3', 1995, oil in canvas, 179 x 229 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Zhang Xiaogang, ‘Bloodline Big Family No. 3’, 1995, oil in canvas, 179 x 229 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Other results at Sotheby’s Spring sales series

The Modern and Contemporary Asian Art evening auction on 5 April brought home some big sales, with Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family N°3 (1995) selling at USD12,147,090 (HKD94,2 million). According to ArtNet, this breaks the artist’s previous auction record of USD10.1 million (HKD79 million) for his triptych Forever Lasting Love (1988) sold in April 2011 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong by Belgian collector Baron Guy Ullens.

An auction record was also set for Indonesian artist Sudjana Sudjono for Our Soldiers Led Under Prince Diponegoro (1979), which went under the hammer for USD7.5 million (HKD58,4 million) at the Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art sale, also on 5 April, setting a new record for a Southeast Asian artist at auction.

S Sudjojono, 'Pasukan Kita Yang Dipimpin Pangeran Diponegoro' (Our Soldiers Led Under Prince Diponegoro), 1979, oil on canvas, 100 x 199.5 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

S Sudjojono, ‘Pasukan Kita Yang Dipimpin Pangeran Diponegoro’ (Our Soldiers Led Under Prince Diponegoro), 1979, oil on canvas, 100 x 199.5 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Editor’s note: all final sale prices include the buyers’ premium.

Claire Bouchara

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Related Topics: auctions, events in Hong Kongbusiness of artChinese art and artists

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