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Chinese Buying Drives Sotheby’s Hong Kong Sale To $170 Million

Bidders From Mainland China Dominate As Expectations Are Surpassed In Landmark Autumn Auction

Chinese contemporary artist Liu Ye's "Portrait of L" sold in Hong Kong for $209,000 over its high estimate

Chinese contemporary artist Liu Ye's "Portrait of L" sold in Hong Kong for $209,000 over its high estimate

Over the last week, we’ve followed the Sotheby’s autumn auction in Hong Kong, which included sales of everything from fine wine to antiquities to contemporary Chinese and Asian art, noting that sales were well above estimates and sell-through rates were promising. Today, in a wrap-up of the sales, Le-Min Lim of Bloomberg illustrates how this series of auctions, led by Chinese rather than American buyers, represents a major shift in auction buying trends:

The total beat both the presale estimate of HK$950 million and last year’s auction, which raised HK$1.1 billion ($141.7 million at that time), half its forecast, three weeks after Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s September 2008 failure.

“The bidding was intense,” auctioneer Henry Howard-Sneyd said in an interview after the auction. The mood in the saleroom was “electric” when Emperor Qianlong’s throne came on the block yesterday, he said: “This shows when the right item comes along, the money is there — especially from China.”

Chinese collectors have come out in force over the last year, recognizing quality lots and quickly developing a sophisticated eye for collection-worthy wines and paintings. In terms of antiquities, an area in which Chinese collectors have more experience, however, they seemingly can’t be beat:

The strength of Chinese bidding at the antiques sale defies a decade-old trend of Western dominance at the priciest end of the market. As recently as June, Sotheby’s rival, Christie’s International, said Americans were its top clients in this category, followed by the Chinese and Hong Kongers. Of the 2,400 lots offered this week, 88 percent found buyers.

The Chinese also bought the priciest wines and oil paintings by masters and contemporary art. Over the weekend, a Chinese buyer paid a record $94,000 for a 6-liter bottle of Chateau Petrus 1982; another spent HK$7.3 million for a 1984 oil-and-color on paper by Li Keran at the auction of classical Chinese paintings; while a third spent HK$36.5 million on a mid- 1950s oil-on-board painting, “Lotus et Poissons Rouges” (“Lotus and Red Fish”) by deceased Chinese master Sanyu.

While this article claims contemporary art underperformed, I think the sell-through at the contemporary Asian art auction speaks for itself. If lumping together all of the pieces at the contemporary auction — which included Chinese, Japanese and Korean artists in one large sale — I would say the final tally is brought down significantly by the Japanese and Korean artists, who sell, on the whole, for significantly less than quality Chinese contemporary artists.

In terms of the Chinese artists up for grabs in the contemporary sale, selling rates were excellent, with 5 of the 6 Zeng Fanzhi paintings up for auction going for well above than their high estimates, Yue Minjun’s “Hats Series – Two Lovers” selling for $372,000 over its high estimate, and works by top Chinese artists like Liu Ye, Wang Guangyi, and Huang Yongping destroying pre-sale estimates.

“The Chinese Are Out In Force” At Sotheby’s Hong Kong Auctions

Mainland New Collectors Pushing Contemporary Chinese Art Nearly Back To 2007 Levels As Classic Chinese Photography Sells Out

Sold in Hong Kong for $1.1 million USD, $372,000 over high estimate: Zhang Xiaogang's "Comrade (Diptych)" Image: Sotheby's

Sold in Hong Kong for $1.1 million USD, $372,000 over high estimate: Zhang Xiaogang's "Comrade (Diptych)" Image: Sotheby's

There’s been no shortage of jaw-dropping figures coming out of Sotheby’s Hong Kong autumn auction, as this weekend’s fine wine auctions brought in nearly US$8 million, Fine Chinese paintings took in US$23.5 million, 20th century Chinese art made US$14 million and today’s contemporary Chinese and other Asian art pulled in almost US$15 million — mainly on the strength of contemporary Chinese artists like Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun. Among the countries represented in the Asian contemporary art sale — China, Japan and South Korea — sales of Chinese art were the most consistent and showed the highest sell-through.

With spirited bidding by mainland Chinese collectors, and important milestones like 100% of the classic Chinese photography selling out, it looks like the contemporary Chinese art market is back in business in a very significant way, driven more by domestic rather than foreign demand as its performance parallels the Chinese economy. The prevalence of mainland collectors in all of this week’s auctions could really indicate that these autumn auctions are a major turning point in contemporary Chinese art as the point at which the Chinese collector really came into his own.

Although news reports are still forthcoming about the buyer breakdown, based on the turnout these last few days it seems as if Golden Week has indeed attracted many mainland Chinese collectors to depart with their gold in Hong Kong. From Bloomberg yesterday, regarding Chinese buyers at yesterday’s auction of Fine Chinese paintings:

The Chinese are out in force,” said Jerome Chen, 60, a Hong Kong-based collector…“It’s hard to outbid them.”

Low-key and unassuming, the Chinese buyers at yesterday’s auction sat mostly clustered in the back rows, watching their rivals and whispering into mobile phones between bids. China’s accelerating growth and a 50 percent gain in the benchmark Shanghai stock index from the same time last year have generated wealth and stirred buyer confidence.

The fresh figures coming out of Hong Kong this morning indicate that these “low-key” Chinese bidders were not only present, they dominated at the contemporary Asian art auction, pushing contemporary Chinese art prices to some of the highest levels seen in the last couple of years. One of China’s premier contemporary artists, Zhang Xiaogang, attracted the highest bid with his “Comrade (Diptych)” going for US$1.1 million  (US$405,000 over high estimate), and top artists like Yue Minjun (whose “Hats Series – The Lovers” sold for US$823,000, US$372,000 over high estimate), Liu Ye (whose “Portrait of L” went for US$467,000, or $209,000 over high estimate), Huang Yongping, Zeng Fanzhi (who sold 5 out of 6 paintings, all above high estimates), Wang Guangyi, Xiang Jing and others all surpassed estimates and found new homes — presumably back in the country of their origin.

In October, Sotheby's will put on a large-scale sale of Asian art in Hong Kong. Will The New Chinese Collector continue to flex his (or her) muscles at that sale?

Yue Minjun had an exceptional showing, taking in $823,000 for "Hats Series - The Lovers"

Following the reputation we’ve seen developing over the last several months, Chinese collectors are fast becoming notorious in the auction world as sophisticated and determined buyers. As the Bloomberg article about yesterday’s auction notes, either you love [selling to] them or you hate [competing with] them:

It’s very clear the Chinese are holding up Asia’s art market,” said Eddie Leung, 51, an art collector and managing director of Paper Communication Exhibition Services, in an interview at the venue. “It’s great if you’re a seller, but awful if you’re bidding against them.”

Though James Pomfret, writing for Reuters today, says the contemporary auction had “mixed results,” it seems to us that the Chinese works stole the show. Although some Japanese and Korean pieces did well, they by and large reduced the overall sale figures. Looking only at the Chinese pieces sold, it would seem that this sale was a major success overall:

In the Asian contemporary sale, Chinese artists once again dominated. While there were few blockbuster prices testing the $1 million mark except Zhang Xiaogang’s “Comrade,” solid results were seen for the works of Liu Ye, Li Songsong and Fang Lijun, with most top lots bought by mainland Chinese collectors.

Art Market Confidence Index Shows 75% Of HK Auction Respondents In The Mood To Buy

As Hong Kong “Stirs From Slumber” And Buyer Confidence Remains High In China, What Can We Expect To See Next Week?

Zeng Fanzhi is one of the historical Chinese contemporary artists up for auction in Hong Kong next week

Zeng Fanzhi is one of the historical Chinese contemporary artists up for auction in Hong Kong next week

We’ve been interested in the upcoming Hong Kong Sotheby’s auctions of Contemporary Chinese, Southeast Asian and other Asian art, with a particularly obvious fixation on the Chinese side, for some time. After the surprising turnout of mainland Chinese, and their willingness to go far above and beyond lot estimates to take home something they’ve set their hearts on, Sotheby’s is likely expecting a good proportion of bidders both from the mainland and other areas of Greater China — definitely Hong Kong, since buyers from that market have been something of a fixture at Chinese art auctions for ages. And while the unpredictable nature of art auctions makes it difficult to forecast how next week’s auctions turn out (although total revenue estimates for all of the Hong Kong auctions are close to US$100 million), many people are excited and motivated to buy some high-quality, historical art.

One thing that makes the auction of contemporary Chinese art even more interesting to me on a personal level is the way it will coincide with “Golden Week,” a week of celebrations coinciding with both Chinese National Day and the Mid-Autumn Festival. If last year’s turnout was any indication, Golden Week could draw well over a million mainlanders to Hong Kong this year, most of whom are coming to the city either to shop for expensive objects or eat and drink for days. While Golden Week, on its own, really shouldn’t affect the Sotheby’s sale too much, it is within the realm of possibility that some of the shopping-mad mainlanders might be shipping a Yue Minjun or Liu Ye painting home along with their boxes of luxury goods.

Another reason I’m excited about the Hong Kong sales next week is because of this article, published today by Art Market Insight, which is bullish on the article because of the comparatively fast re-emergence of Hong Kong following the global economic crisis:

Once again, Sotheby’s is weighting its sale in favour of the Contemporary segment (Contemporary Asian Art) which carries the richest of the three catalogues with 190 lots and a total revenue estimate of $12.5m. In order to re-kindle interest amongst its biggest clients, the auctioneer has built a catalogue of very attractive signatures. Among the star lots: a powder drawing by CAI Guoqiang , Money net NO.2, estimated at HKD 4.7m – 5.5m, ($606,000 – $710,000), several paintings by YUE Minjun , including Hats series – The lovers expected to generate around $400,000 (estimated HKD 2.8m – 3.5m), three paintings from the famous Chinese Portrait series by FENG Zhengjie including a superb contemporary Amazon (4 x 3 metres) estimated at $100,000 – $130,000 (HKD 800,000 – 1m). A very similar monumental portrait fetched $133,000 in June 2009 (Phillips de Pury & Company, London, £81,000).

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Sotheby’s Autumn Auction 2009: Top 10 Lots To Watch

Strong interest from Asian buyers expected to spark October sale in HK

As we reported recently, the Sotheby’s autumn auction of Asian art which highlights important contemporary Chinese pieces — will take place in Hong Kong on October 6. With combined estimates at over $12 Million US (HK $98 Million), this sale is expected to be one of the year’s biggest and most-watched auctions. As we have noticed in recent sales — both in Hong Kong and elsewhere — one thing we can expect in this auction is a high proportion of domestic Chinese buyers in the room, and we can expect them to be motivated to buy. Today, in preparation for the upcoming auction season, Forbes published an article on the market for Chinese art, noting that it is becoming gradually more difficult for western collectors to buy a range of Chinese art because of the growing collector base within the country. Describing the increasing numbers of Chinese bidders at antiquities auctions, Sallie Brady writes, “there’s a new dynamic afoot that promises to drive up prices: Mainland Chinese are entering the market in ever greater numbers.”

So for collectors who are interested in making bids on lots in the upcoming Sotheby’s auction, what should they know before they go head-to-head with Chinese buyers? Aside from doing their research to stay up-to-date on recent developments and informed about the past work and possible future longevity of the historical artworks that are up for grabs, it pays to know which lots are the “all stars.” I have looked through the catalog, and here is my list of the “Top 10” lots up for auction on October 6:

1.) Cai Guo-Qiang: Money Net No. 2 (2002)
Lot: 645
Estimate: US$ 605,000-705,000 (HK$ 4,700,000-5,500,000)

MoneyNet.jpg Cai Guo-Qiang (born 1957, Quanzhou, Fujian Province) was educated in stage design at the Shanghai Drama Institute from 1981 to 1985. Gunpowder is his trademark medium, from drawings and paintings made by igniting carefully monitored explosions on paper and canvas to massive explosion events like Projects for Extraterrestrials. He is also known for sculptural installation works such as Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows (1998), a massive wooden boat riddled with arrows that recalls a legendary tactic of an ancient Chinese general. Cai has had many solo exhibitions, including Cai Guo-Qiang on the Roof: Transparent Monument at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2006) and Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (2008). He was awarded the International Golden Lion prize at the 48th Venice Biennale (1999), and curated the first China Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005). He was the Chief Special Effects Designer for the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ creative team. Cai lives in Brooklyn.
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Update: Christie’s HK Evening Auction of Contemporary Chinese And Asian Art A Success

Evening Sale of Chinese and Asian Contemporary and 20th Century Art Brings In $23.4 million – 89% Sold By Lot, 98% Sold By Value, Zao Wou-Ki Takes In $4,585,704 For One Painting

Sold for $858,037: Contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang's "Big Family Series No. 21" (1999)

Sold for $858,037: Contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang's "Big Family Series No. 21" (1999)

A quick update about Christie’s first out of three Asian and Chinese contemporary and 20th century art auctions currently taking place in Hong Kong. As of the first sale — the evening sale — bidding was strong and prices healthy, with historical and top artists selling well and for good prices. Some artists, such as Chinese artist Sanyu — who was sold for $5.4 million — set artist records, as the artist (who died in 1966) far exceeded the previous record set for his work in 2006.

Although I don’t have much detail yet about the buyer demographics — I’ll post an update once I do — here are some of the figures from the first night of auctions:

Zao Wou-Ki $7,660,122 (Total, for three works)
Cai Guo-Qiang $1,091,341
Zhang Xiaogang $858,037
Zeng Fanzhi $780,270
Liu Ye $624,734
Fang Lijun $593,627
Yoshitomo Nara (Japanese) $562,520
Chen Yifei $267,003

You can see the final results of all lots for the evening sale here. Updates will follow on the following auctions.