Record-breaking results, including Zeng Fanzhi commanding the highest price for Asian contemporary art at auction, may help Sotheby’s stave off criticism of lack-lustre sales strategies.

On 5 October 2013, Zeng Fanzhi’s The Last Supper sold for a record-breaking USD23.3 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong 40th Anniversary Evening Sale. The special evening sale, marking forty years of the auction house in Asia, included sixteen record-breakers and was taken by some commentators to signal a return to form for the contemporary auction market in Asia.

ZengFanzhi, 'The Last Supper', 2001, oil on canvas, 220 x 395 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Zeng Fanzhi, ‘The Last Supper’, 2001, oil on canvas, 220 x 395 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Zeng Fanzhi‘s The Last Supper, a large-scale work based on Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the same name, caused a bidding war that lasted nearly fifteen minutes, first between five and then two potential buyers. The work finally went for HKD180.4 million (USD23.3 million) to a phone bidder whom Sotheby’s has not identified, more than doubling its pre-sale estimate of USD10 million and elevating Zeng to the position of most expensive living Chinese artist (final figures include fees but estimates do not).

The Last Supper was the highlight of Sotheby’s Hong Kong 40th Anniversary Evening Sale, which marked four decades of the auction house in Asia. 55 of the 61 paintings and sculptures sold for a total value of HKD1.13 billion (USD145.2 million). In a break from tradition, Sotheby’s combined works from the twentieth century and the contemporary eras, categories which the house usually subdivides, into one 61-lot sale.

The change of tack seemed to work for Sotheby’s, as over 700 people crammed into the sale room at Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre for the auction. Periodic applause broke out throughout the bidding for Zeng’s painting and as the hammer came down.

Zao Wou-ki, '15.01.82', 1982, oil on canvas triptych, 195 x 390 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Zao Wou-ki, ‘15.01.82’, 1982, oil on canvas triptych, 195 x 390 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Zeng tops Asian artists

The result means that Zeng now replaces Takashi Murakami as the record holder for most expensive Asian contemporary work at auction. Murakami had held the top spot since 2008, when his sculpture My Lonesome Cowboy made USD15.1 million at Sotheby’s New York. The highest previous recorded price for a Chinese contemporary work was HKD79 million (USD10 million) for Zhang Xiaogang’s Forever Lasting Love (2008).

Nick Simunovic, Director of the Gagosian Gallery in Hong Kong, which represents Zeng Fanzhi, told the Wall Street Journal that the price left him gobsmacked. “I’m speechless with that price. It was questionable to me if the market could absorb so much quality material, but clearly it did.”

Walter Spies, 'Blick von der Hohe' (A View from the Heights)', 1934, oil on canvas, 100.5 x 82.5 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Walter Spies, ‘Blick von der Hohe’ (A View from the Heights)’, 1934, oil on canvas, 100.5 x 82.5 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Capitalism and Communism: Zeng Fanzhi’s The Last Supper

The Last Supper, from Zeng’s “Mask” series, is a large-scale work based on Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the same name. Instead of showing Jesus and the Apostles in historical garb, Zeng substitutes his figures with masked Young Pioneers, a Chinese Communist youth group. The “Judas” figure sports a gold tie, a metaphor that Zeng uses to represent Western capitalism, according to ARTINFO. The piece was sold by Swiss collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens de Schooten.

Chen Yifei, 'Red Flag 1', 1972, oil on canvas, 300 x 159 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Chen Yifei, ‘Red Flag 1’, 1972, oil on canvas, 300 x 159 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Chinese artists prove popular

Zeng Fanzhi was among several Chinese artists whose work sold strongly at the auction. Chen Yifei‘s Red Flag 1 (1971) also came from the Ullens stable and sold for HKD79.6 million (USD10.2 million). The work shows a Chinese guerrilla fighter, rifle in one hand and a red flag in the other, surrounded by soldiers. Chen, a film director and fashion designer as well as artist, was a prominent member of Chinese Realism, combining both romanticism and realism in his oil paintings.

Sanyu, 'Goldfish', 1930s-40s, oil on canvas, 73.8 x 50.2 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Sanyu, ‘Goldfish’, 1930s-40s, oil on canvas, 73.8 x 50.2 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Sanyu (Chang Yu), whose Two Standing Nudes fetched HKD44 million (USD5.78 million) in Christie’s 2013 Spring Sale, made an appearance with Goldfish. An example of Sanyu’s “signature Matisse-influenced style“, according to ARTINFO, the painting shows eight goldfish swimming in a blood-orange background and sold for HKD67.3 million (USD8.6 million) .

A Zao Wou-Ki work also broke records, fetching HKD85.2 million (USD11 million), the most ever paid at auction for the perennially popular artist, who died earlier in 2013. The triptych, 15.1.82, which had been much-vaunted in the run up to the sale, failed to realise the pre-sale estimate of HKD90 million but broke records nonetheless.

Rudi Mantofani, 'Red Shadow', 2009, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 200 xm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Rudi Mantofani, ‘Red Shadow’, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Southeast Asian art also strong

The evening sale also saw several records broken for Southeast Asian art, indicating an increase in the region’s collectors, according to BloombergRed Shadow, a painting by Indonesia’s Rudi Mantofani, sold for HKD3.64 million (USD469,487), a record for the artist, and Juan Luna‘s Espana y Filipinas sold for HKD25.88 million (USD3.3 million), a Philippine auction record which sees Luna overtake Ronald Ventura in the nation’s top sellers. Market, an abstract work by Singapore-based Chen Wen-Hsi, sold for HKD13.24 million (USD1.7 million), another artist record.

Juan Luna, 'España y Filipinas', 1884, oil on canvas, 229.5 x 79.5 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Juan Luna, ‘España y Filipinas’, 1884, oil on canvas, 229.5 x 79.5 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s counters “incendiary and baseless” criticism?

The success of the sale and the five day series, which included sales in 20th Century Chinese Art, Contemporary Asian Art and Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art, may go some way towards countering recent criticism of Sotheby’s sales strategies. Daniel Loeb, Sotheby’s shareholder and Chief Executive of hedge fund Third Point LLC, bemoaned the house’s “chronically weak operating margins and deteriorating competitive position relative to Christie’s” in an open letter in The Art Newspaper calling for the resignation of Chairman and Chief Executive Bill Ruprecht.

Responding to Loeb’s criticism prior to the Hong Kong sale, a Sotheby’s representative told The Art Newspaper:

Rather than debating incendiary and baseless comments, we are focused on serving our clients’ needs during this critical autumn sales season, including this week in Hong Kong, where our offerings are 77% higher than the same series last year—the highest estimate of any Sotheby’s sale in Asia.

The auction house draws attention to the fact it sold USD1.3 billion in contemporary art last year internationally, up from USD872 million in 2010. Hong Kong-based dealer Pascal de Sarthe confirmed the bouyant mood following the evening sale, telling the Wall Street Journal, “there were a lot of new buyers I haven’t seen before. The market has exploded.”

All sale prices and estimates exclude buyer’s premium unless indicated.

 Cassandra Naji


Related Topics: market watch – auctionsHong Kong art eventsbusiness 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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