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“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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