Despite a more crowded art auction scene, Hong Kong sales looked positive for both Sotheby’s and the Chinese houses.

Sotheby’s found itself competing with China Guardian, Beijing Poly and Tiancheng International from 3 to 8 April 2013, as all three auction houses scheduled their auctions at the same time. Art Radar rounds up market watchers’ opinions and takes a closer look at how the newcomers fared.

The hammer comes down during one of Sotheby's Spring 2013 auctions in Hong Kong

The hammer comes down during one of Sotheby’s Spring 2013 auctions in Hong Kong.

The Wall Street Journal described the week of auctions in Hong Kong in April 2013 as a “showdown“, with all four houses putting contemporary Asian art under the hammer at the same time, and noted the difference in buyers’ premium between the houses: China Guardian and Beijing Poly charged a fixed 15 percent for all items and Tiancheng charged 18 percent. Sotheby’s on the other hand charged 25 percent on items up to HKD40,000, 20 percent on items between HKD400,000 and HKD8million and 12 percent for all items over the HKD8 million mark. The paper wondered whether that might give the Chinese houses a competitive advantage.

Kevin Ching, Chief Executive of Sotheby’s Asia, dismissed the rumours of rivalry. “There’s no competition as such,” he assured The Wall Street Journal. “The only thing [the Chinese houses] do well is Chinese paintings, and they’re still miles behind us in other categories.”

Ching’s confidence appeared to have been well placed, as Sotheby’s contemporary Asian art sale achieved USD24.9 million including the buyer’s premium; this is substantially over the estimate of USD19.8 million, although the latter figure does not include buyers’ premium. This was a welcome recovery from the lacklustre contemporary art sales of October 2012, which came in at USD1 million below estimates at USD15 million.

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

Zhou Chunya, 'Green Dog, No. 3', 1997, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Zhou Chunya, ‘Green Dog, No. 3’, 1997, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

What happened in the auction room

Contemporary Asian Art (5 April 2013)

The sale incorporated two single-owner collections, “The Didier Hirsch Collection of Contemporary Chinese Art from the 1990s” and “You Are Not Alone – Yoshitomo Nara Works from the Kurokochi Collection“, as well as individual contemporary works. The sell-through rate was 81 percent, with total sales for the day topping out at HKD194.5 million (USD24.9 million), which beat the estimate of HKD154 million (USD19.8 million), excluding the buyers’ premium. Works by Fang Lijun and Liu Wei garnered high prices from the Hirsch collection. The Kurokochi collection showed “stellar” results, said ARTINFO, fetching a total of HKD41 million (USD5.2 million).

Some highlights from the sale:

  • Yoshitomo Nara‘s Sleepless Night (Standing) (1997) sold for nearly double its high estimate at HKD9.4 million (USD1.2 million).
  • Nara’s White Night (2006) also busted estimates to achieve HKD9 million (USD1.15 million).
  • Kai-Ten (2001), also from the Nara sale, hit HKD3.64 million (USD466,667) with a pre-sale estimate of HKD1.2 – 1.6 million.
  • The highest bid that came out of the Didier Hirsch Collection was Zhou Chunya‘s Green Dog, No. 3 (1997), which fetched HKD8.2 million (USD1 million).
Yoshitomo Nara, 'Sleepless Night (Standing)', 1998, watercolour. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Yoshitomo Nara, ‘Sleepless Night (Standing)’, 1998, watercolour. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Paintings (6 April 2013)

The Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Paintings sale commanded HKD113 million (USD14.5 million), more than double the pre-sale estimate (HKD42 million / USD5.3 million). But ARTINFO noted that while the sale may have made well over its low estimate (which did not include the buyers’ premium), it still fell below the USD15.5 million made by the category in October 2012.

Nevertheless, that still meant the April 2013 results were the second highest ever for the category (PDF download), said Sotheby’s rep Mok Kim Chuan in a press release. The top seller was Lee Man Fong‘s Bali Life at HKD21.4 million (USD2.7 million), and Mok singled out some other notable sales in the press release,

Filipino artists continue to assert themselves in this market and today we saw a record set for Filipino artist Fernando Zobel, whose ‘Hattecvm’, estimated at HKD780,000 to 1.2 million, sold for HKD8.2 million (USD1.1 million) and also a top price among contemporary works of HKD3.28m (USD420,513) paid for much sought-after Filipino artist Ronald Ventura‘s ‘Eye Land’, which far surpassed its pre-sale estimate of HKD750,000 to 950,000.

This is Ventura’s second success at Sotheby’s Hong Kong: his piece The Dive achieved six times its estimate with a final price of HKD4 million (USD515,000) before commission in the 2012 autumn auctions. Filipino Ang Kiukok did similarly well, establishing a new personal sales record with Thinking Man (estimate HKD240,000 to 320,000), which sold for HKD1.6 million (USD205,128).

ARTINFO said that most of the works went to Asian buyers, but noted Sotheby’s assertion that the collector base was becoming more international.

Lee Man Fong, 'Bali Life', circa 1960s, oil on masonite board. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Lee Man Fong, ‘Bali Life’, circa 1960s, oil on masonite board. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

20th Century Chinese Art (6 April 2013)

Alongside Modern pieces, a smattering of contemporary works went under the hammer in this sale. Commentators such as Art Daily noted the crowded and competitive atmosphere of the saleroom, and a Sotheby’s press release stated that there were over 400 bidders in attendance (PDF download). Total sales for the auction were HKD204.6 million or USD26.2 million, exceeding estimates by HKD145 million (USD18.5 million), with six works selling for more than HKD10 million (USD1.28 million).

The three most expensive works were all contemporary:

  • The most expensive item to go under the hammer was Zao Wou-ki‘s 10.03.83, which drew a top bid of HKD37 million (USD4.7 million), said the South China Morning Post. Sotheby’s confirmed the 1983 work sold to an in-room buyer.
  • The second-priciest lot was Chu Teh-chun‘s 25 December 1985, which went for HKD23.6 million (USD3 million).
  • Wang Yidong‘s Teasing the Newlyweds (1998) was the third-priciest, selling for HKD19.1 million (USD2.4 million)
Zeng Fanzhi, 'Mao's Song Poem of Snow, No. 2', 2006, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Beijing Poly.

Zeng Fanzhi, ‘Mao’s Song Poem of Snow, No. 2’, 2006, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Beijing Poly.

So how did the other houses do?

Success for Sotheby’s did not signify losses at the other contemporary art auctions taking place across Hong Kong in April 2013, with strong sales also reported from the Chinese houses. ARTINFO pointed out that

mainland Chinese auctioneers are elbowing in on Sotheby’s and Christie’s turf aggressively by focusing on what they do well: paintings by Chinese masters and works with a nationalist edge. The Asian auctioneers are gaining the trust of collectors outside of mainland China, increasingly selling to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and some Western collectors, with Poly observing that their overseas buyers grew by 60 percent [in April 2013].

Beijing Poly

Established eight years ago under the state-owned China Poly Group, Beijing Poly was owned by the People’s Liberation Army of China until 2005, according to The New York Times. GlobalPost lists Poly as the world’s third largest auction house after Sotheby’s and Christie’s. In 2012, it opened its first European office and held its inaugural Hong Kong auction.

Poly was pitting itself directly against Sotheby’s, said ARTINFO, with a total estimate of HKD100 million across all sales for April 2013. This year, China’s biggest house doubled the number of items for sale compared to its first Hong Kong auction. In total, across all sales, the house took in USD82.7 million (including the buyers’ premium), well above estimates.

  • The heavily anticipated Mao’s Song Poem of Snow, No. 2 by Zeng Fanzhi (estimate HKD17 to 22 million) sold for HKD17.2 million (USD2.2 million).
  • Wu Guanzhong‘s Tigers (1994), an ink and colour work estimated at HKD7 to 14 million, sold for HKD12.6 million (USD1.6 million).
  • Mask Series (1998), also by Zeng Fanzhi, achieved HKD10.3 million (USD1.3 million), just pipping its estimate of between HKD8 to 10 million.
Wu Guanzhong, 'Tigers', 1994, ink and colour on paper. Image courtesy Beijing Poly.

Wu Guanzhong, ‘Tigers’, 1994, ink and colour on paper. Image courtesy Beijing Poly.

China Guardian

China Guardian, the world’s fourth largest auction house according to the Financial Times, was founded in 1993 and specialises in Chinese art and artifacts. 2013 saw China Guardian branch out with a first ever sale devoted to 25 Hong Kong ink paintings, which brought in about USD760,000. Art Market Monitor reported that China Guardian had achieved total sales of HKD293 million (USD38 million) across all sales in April (including the buyers’ premium), nearly 50 percent more than the pre-auction week estimate, which excluded the buyers’ premium.

  • Zhang Daqian‘s Cottages in Misty Mountains, which sold for HKD27 million (USD3.5 million) to an on phone bidder, achieved one of the highest prices out of the Hong Kong art sales. The previously estimated price for this work was HKD12 to 22 million.
  • Zen – Lotus (1972) by Lui Shou-kwan sold for HKD747,500 (USD94,000), above its estimate of HKD180,000 to 280,000.
  • Liu Kuo-sung‘s scroll Roof of the World (1987), achieved HKD713,000, double its estimate of HKD150,000 to 250,000.

Tiancheng International

Tiancheng, the smallest of the three Chinese houses, is Hong Kong based with mainland investors. According to Bloomberg, the house achieved HKD75.6 million across both sales of fine Chinese paintings and modern and contemporary art, both of which took place on April 6, however pointed out that 49 out of 85 lots in the Modern and Contemporary Art auction remained unsold.

The highest prices in the Modern and Contemporary art sale were

  • Lin Fengmian‘s Hydrangea, a Chinese ink and colour which sold for HKD 1.18 million (USD150,000).
  • Pine Forest by Wu Guanzhong, which took HKD1 million (USD130,000).
  • Yen Shuilong‘s maritime landscape Lan Yu, which sold for HKD944,000 (USD121,000).

Competition no problem, claims Sotheby’s

The overall results of 2013’s Spring auctions seemed to bear out Nicolas Chow’s comments that competition was good for business. Speaking to Reuters, the Deputy Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, said that the increased number of auction houses “helps draw more people towards Hong Kong, and makes Hong Kong an even greater centre for the art trade, particularly in this field“. Sotheby’s will hold their first mainland China auction in Beijing later in 2013.


Related Topics: market watch – art auctions, art events in Hong kong, art world trends – connecting Asia to itself

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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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