Asian buyers splashed out on Chinese abstract and contemporary Filipino art at Christie’s 25 May 2013 Evening Sale in Hong Kong.

The astonishing record-shattering success of Christie’s Post-war and Contemporary Art evening sale in New York ten days ago was hailed as “a new era in the art market.” Art Radar assesses how the Hong Kong version fared.

San Yu, 'Two Standing Nudes', circa 1929, oil on canvas, 73 x 50 cm. Image courtesy Christie's.

Sanyu, ‘Two Standing Nudes’, circa 1929, oil on canvas, 73 x 50 cm. Image courtesy Christie’s.

After Christie’s seventy lot record evening sale of Post-war and Contemporary Art on 15 May 2013 in the Rockefeller Center, New York, the evening’s auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen was astonished by the sheer number of people willing to drop more that USD20 million. “We are in a new era in the art market” he told the New York Times.

Ten days later it was Hong Kong’s turn. Would this “new era” of high-spending by art collectors extend as far as the South China Sea?

Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Singaporean, Vietnamese and Filipino works were offered in Christie’s Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art sale on 25 May 2013 but Chinese works were dominant in both value and number. And for Chinese art, omens prior to the sale were mixed.

Falling confidence, falling prices?

In its April Confidence Survey ArtTactic, an art market intelligence source, forecast headwinds for auction sales of Chinese art. Confidence has fallen 45 percent since March 2011 and “remains fragile” according to the survey; no doubt a slowdown in China and a recession in Europe, China’s largest export market, have been partly to blame.

Few would argue that high-end dealers are the ultimate masters of branding and some art market watchers look at luxury branded retail sales figures as a significant indicator for the art market. Recently they have found that the growth of sales of luxury goods has been slowing. Leading Chinese business magazine CBN Weekly reported that sales of luxury goods in China grew just seven percent last year compared with an astonishing thirty percent the year before. A much-publicised campaign by the Chinese government to crack down on gift-giving to officials has been cited as the cause, but others claim that the luxury market has been in decline for some time.

Yet the fifty lot sale of Asian Twentieth Century and Contemporary Art with estimates ranging from HKD 600,000 to HKD18 million (USD 77,280 – USD2.3 million) started with a bang. The seats in the James Christie room at Hong Kong’s convention centre were packed, and those who could not squeeze in to stand, swarmed at the two entrances and spilled into the next-door Woods room.

Zao Wou Ki, 'Water Music',  1956 - 1957, oil on canvas, 160.5 x 128.5 cm.

Zao Wou Ki, ‘Water Music’, 1956 – 7, oil on canvas, 160.5 x 128.5 cm.

Chinese abstracts produce stunning results

First off were eight high-priced lots by the ever-popular abstract artists Zao Wou Ki (1920-2013) and Chu Teh Chun (1920-). Zao Wou Ki died last month at the age of 92 and, unsurprisingly, prices for his works were some of the strongest of the evening: all reached or exceeded estimates and two pieces achieved in excess of double their estimates. Water Music (1956-7) was estimated at HKD16-18 million (USD2 – 2.3 million) and achieved HKD28.5 million (USD3.7 million), the highest price for works by this artist in the sale. Four other works were sold for between HKD11 and HKD24 million (USD1.4 – 3.1 million).

The three works of Chu Teh Chun which sold at prices between HKD7 million (USD900,000) and HKD11 million (USD1.4 million) comfortably exceeded their estimates.

Then came the top-selling lot of the evening: Two Standing Nudes, by Chinese artist Sanyu (1901 – 1966), which finally achieved HKD39 million (USD5 million). In a period when many Chinese artists traveled to Europe, Sanyu moved to France in 1923. Painting nudes was forbidden in China but in the heady uninhibited environment of Paris, Sanyu was free to explore the subject. Trained in Chinese calligraphy, most of his nudes were created using Chinese ink. Two Standing Nudes was executed in paint circa 1929.

Abstract art by these three Chinese artists were clearly a big draw at the sale and the room thinned as attention turned next to the sale of artworks from Southeast Asia, Korea and Japan.

Kohei Nawa, 'PixCell Coyote#3', 2008, taxidermied coyote, glass, acrylic, crystal beads  81.5 x 99.5 x 28 cm. Image courtesy Christie's.

Kohei Nawa, ‘PixCell Coyote#3’, 2008, taxidermied coyote, glass, acrylic, crystal beads,
81.5 x 99.5 x 28 cm. Image courtesy Christie’s.

Japanese stalwarts disappoint

Stock markets have been soaring across Southeast Asia since the beginning of the year due to massive money-easing measures by the Bank of Japan. What has been dubbed a “shock and awe” monetary policy has caused Japan’s stock market to increase by 34 percent since November, more than any other in the world. However, works by Japanese artists Yoshitomo Nara and Yayoi Kusama came in at or slightly below estimate.

For these market stalwarts the limp results were surprising given the huge recent success of the sale of the Kurokochi collection of Yoshimoto Nara in April 2013 by Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Kurokuchi, who described himself as “an ordinary man working in a bank” and who amassed his collection between 1988 and 2006, sold 35 lots at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in April for HK$41 million (USD5.3 million), double the pre-sale estimate. However enthusiasm for the mixed day sale of contemporary Asian at Sotheby’s was weaker, prompting speculation that Collector Sales mark a new format for creating premium value.

Fernando Zobel, 'Aracili', 1959, oil on canvas  97 x 146 cm. Image courtesy Christie's.

Fernando Zobel, ‘Aracili’, 1959, oil on canvas
97 x 146 cm. Image courtesy Christie’s.

Filipino art’s exceptional success

The stock market in the Philippines came in at number five in a list of the world’s fastest-growing stock markets in 2013, showing growth of twenty percent this year, and the sale of Filipino art echoed its remarkable success, achieving multiples of the pre-sale estimates.

Two pieces were offered for sale. Fernando Zobel’s Aracili, painted in 1959, sold at HKD5.8 million (USD747,000), three times the higher end of its estimate. Ronald Ventura’s Eyeland Divide sold for double its estimate at HKD2 million (USD258,000).

Sculptures had mixed results

Eight sculptures by artists from China, Japan and Korea were put up for sale with varied results. While all of the works were sold, the three lots from the “Tai Chi Series” by Ju Ming (1938- ) were at or below estimate with sale prices of HKD3.5 million to 5 million (USD451,000 – 644,000). Zhan Wang (1962- ) from China comfortably exceeded the estimate, but the star sculpture was an entrancing work by Kohei Nawa (1975- ) from Japan called Pixcell Coyote #3, which sold for double the pre-sale estimate at HK$2.3 million (USD296,000). The results for Korean artist Nam June Paik (1932- 2006) were disappointing: Hacker Newbie sold for just HK$1 million (USD 130,000) against a pre-sale estimate of HKD2 – 3 million (USD258,000 – 386,000).

Nam June Paik, 'Hacker Newbie', 1994, mixed media sculpture (5TV cabinet, 2 Sony 5TV model 5SLA, 2 telephones,1 radio, 2 chasis, 1 Paik laser disk, 1 laser disk player) 110 x 69 x 157 cm. Image courtesy Christie's.

Nam June Paik, ‘Hacker Newbie’, 1994, mixed media sculpture,
110 x 69 x 157 cm. Image courtesy Christie’s.

Chinese pop and nineties artists mostly disappoint except early Zhang Xiaogang

Two of the three lots in the auction which failed to sell were Chinese pieces made in the era of political pop. Zhang Xiaogang’s Two Comrades with Red Baby was passed at a full price of HK$26 million (USD3.9 million) and Liu Wei’s Head failed to attract bidders.

However, it appeared that collectors were balking at the prices of the artworks rather than the artists themselves as other works by the same artists were successfully sold. While Zhang Xiaogang’s “Bloodline Series” was out of favour, there was strong demand for his Madonna and Child (1989) which was bid up to a price of HKD9.3 million (USD1.2 million), well over three times the pre-sale estimate. Zhang Xiaogang’s mixed results were unexpected given that he is in ArtTactic’s top five Chinese artists which collectors have most confidence in long term.

The packed sale room was not the only proof of continuing interest in higher-priced Asian contemporary art. Multiple bids from in the room, online and on the phone demonstrated a broad-based demand. The sell through rate was a high 90 percent, 91 percent by value and ten lots sold for at least two to three times the pre-sale estimate.

Zhang Xiaogang, 'Madonna and Child', oil on canvas  91 x 72 cm. Image courtesy Christie's.

Zhang Xiaogang, ‘Madonna and Child’, 1989, oil on canvas,
91 x 72 cm. Image courtesy Christie’s.

Singapore surprise

The surprise result of the evening was Still Life with Tropical Fruits by Singaporean Georgette Chen, which sold for HKD4.2 million (USD541,000), more than five times its pre-sale estimate. Chen (1906 – 1993), one of twelve children from a wealthy background, was brought up in Paris where she absorbed the influences of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Her parents were never able to accept her decision to become an artist but despite that, she became known as a significant contributor to the ‘Nanyang Style’ of Singapore.

Georgette Chen, 'Still Life with Tropical Fruits', 1967, oil on canvas  54 x 64 cm. Image courtesy Christie's.

Georgette Chen, ‘Still Life with Tropical Fruits’, 1967, oil on canvas,
54 x 64 cm. Image courtesy Christie’s.

Competition creates strain for Christie’s and Sotheby’s

Despite Christie’s successful New York sale amounting to over three quarters of a billion US dollars, there are concerns that the health of the top auction houses is “heavily reliant on mega sales and record prices” says ArtTactic. Insatiable demand for the very best pieces of work has resulted in sharp competition in an environment of thin supply.

While collectors of Asian contemporary art are still not ready to “drop USD20 million” on a piece, and even USD5 million is a push, what was undoubtedly evident in the Asian Modern and Contemporary evening sale was overwhelming confidence by Asian buyers in the higher-end modern and contemporary Asian art market.

The top ten results

The top ten selling lots at Christie's Hong Kong evening sale Asian Modern and Contemporary Art. Final hammer prices given above include buyers' premium.

The top ten selling lots at Christie’s Hong Kong evening sale Asian Twentieth Century and Contemporary Art. Final prices given above include buyers’ premium.

Four world records

Four world auction records were established: three for Modern works and one for a contemporary work.


Intense competition for high-value pieces is encouraging Christie’s and Sotheby’s to work hard to develop new categories of interest from similar periods. Both houses are debuting sales of Chinese contemporary ink this Spring – watch our for our coverage of this hot new trend.

All sale prices and estimates exclude buyer’s premium unless indicated. USD/HKD exchange rate used in this story is HK$1 = US$0.1288


Related Topics: market watch – auctions, Hong Kong art events, business of art

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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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