Sotheby’s just wrapped up their five-day spring auctions in Hong Kong, a sales series that ran from 31 March to 4 April 2012. Though contemporary Chinese art sold well, Modern works were the clear highlights of the show, perhaps indicating a shift towards a discerning collection of established artists.

A photo from Sotheby's Hong Kong Twentieth Century Chinese Art sale on 2 April 2012.

With rumours of an overheated contemporary art market and a potential hard landing for the Chinese economy, all eyes were on Sotheby’s Hong Kong spring sales to gauge how the 2012 market is developing. Three of the auctions included contemporary art, and we bring you the highlights of these events.

Contemporary Asian Art

Jia Aili, 'It's Not Only You Who is Pale', 2007, oil on canvas.

Chinese artists filled all of the top slots at the spring 2012 Contemporary Asian Art auction held in Hong Kong on 2 April, though this was due largely to their heavy representation in the sale. Three quarters of the lots sold, netting a total of over HKD211 million (USD27 million), just under the cumulative high estimate. Of particular note was It’s Not Only You Who is Pale by Jia Aili, which nearly doubled the high estimate to set a world auction record for his work. Fang Lijun also sold well, with four of his pieces occupying top ten sales spots.

Zhang Xiaogang, 'Bloodline – Big Family: Family No. 2', 1993, oil on canvas.

The star of the auction, however, was Zhang Xiaogang‘s Bloodline – Big Family: Family No. 2. Apart from being the earliest work from the “Bloodline – Big Family” series ever to hit the auction floor, it is also the third best-selling of the group. As the painting was bought directly by a private collector in 1996, this was the first time the public had seen the work. According to Sotheby’s Head of Contemporary Asian Art Evelyn Lin, Sotheby’s was able to source many Zhang Xiaogang works for this sale because of their success in selling his works in the 2011 auctions. Here are the Spring 2012 Contemporary Asian Art top ten sales:

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Modern & Contemporary Southeast Asian Art

Le Pho, 'Le Rideau Mauve (The Purple Curtain)', circa 1942-25, ink and gouache on silk. Now the highest-priced work of Vietnamese art sold at auction.

Modern art outpaced contemporary for the Southeast Asian art sale. Many personal records were set for Modern masters, such as for But Mochtar and Ahmad Sadali of the Bandung School painters. At HKD2,900,000, modern artist Le Pho‘s ink painting Le Rideau Mauve (The Purple Curtain) not only set an individual record, but also became the highest price ever paid at auction for a work from a Vietnamese artist. Among contemporary works, Indonesian artist Ay Tjoe Christine set a personal record for her work, Langit – Langit Merah (Red Ceiling). Many of her works ended up selling for nearly ten times the lower estimate. In the end, 80 percent of the lots had sold for a total of around HKD96 million (USD12.3 million), far surpassing the cumulative pre-sale high estimate of HKD70 million. Here are the five top-selling contemporary works from the sale:

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Twentieth Century Chinese Art

Wang Yidong, 'Morning Mist in Mengshan', 2011, oil on canvas.

For twentieth century Chinese art, no artist shone like Modern abstract painter Zao Wou-ki, who had five of the dozen highest-priced works. Other Modern mainstays rounded out the list, including Wu Guanzhong, Lin Fengmian and Taiwanese-born sculptor Ju Ming. The only contemporary artist to crack the top ten was realist painter Wang Yidong with his work, Morning Mist in Mengshan. Works from another contemporary realist painter, Chen Yifei, also sold well, reaffirming Chen’s reliability as a stable commodity. This exhibition was also historic for being Sotheby’s first twentieth century Chinese art auction to include photographic works, all seventeen of which sold. In the end, an impressive 91 percent of lots had sold for a total of around HKD255 million (USD32.7 million), exceeding the high estimate of HKD238 million. Here are the top five highest-selling contemporary works in this auction:

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All three auctions set records as the second highest-grossing auctions of their respective types. Reports from each of the sales say that the buyers were predominately Asian. Reuters noted that the 25 percent of unsold lots for the Contemporary Asian Art Sale could indicate a slowdown in sales of contemporary Chinese art. With Sotheby’s recently announced Hong Kong exhibition space set to open in May 2012, it remains uncertain whether these sales figures are a minor stumble for the auction house, or a harbinger for the future of their Asia strategy.


Related Topics: market watch, art in Hong Kong, auctions

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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