Ohhh . . . Alright . . .
Oil and magna on canvas,
90.2 × 96.5 cm.
Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

Men in Her Life
Silkscreen and pencil on primed canvas,
214.6 × 211.5 cm.
Courtesy Phillips de Pury & Company,
New York.


Acrylic on canvas, 200 × 200 cm.
Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own
Bindis on fiberglass,
142 × 456.2 × 195 cm.
Courtesy Sotheby’s London.

Chapter of a New Century – Birth of the People’s Republic of China II
Oil, cotton tape and black-and-white photocopy collage on canvas,
149.4 × 119.4 cm.
Courtesy Sotheby’s Hong Kong.


What to Buy: Rarity Reigns Supreme

In the uncertain years of 2009 and 2010, international buyers demonstrated a predilection for blue-chip names, as prices for contemporary art have not yet stabilized. With stocks, real estate and currencies also in constant flux, collectors are motivated to stockpile rare pieces of art, which generally hold their value and increase over time. This desire for sound investments was evident at Phillips de Pury’s Carte Blanche sale on November 8, where among the $137 million spent on revered names, Andy Warhol’s Men in Her Life (1962), a painting of a youthful Elizabeth Taylor, sold for $63.4 million. 

In Asia, the resurgent market got underway in late 2009, and since then the auctions have sprung back to life across all sectors—from wines and sparkling watches to freshly painted canvases, but even more so for antiquities and modern art, which buyers continue to prove are undervalued. The mantra for those bidding is no longer “anything goes” but, for quality pieces,  “the sky’s the limit.”

What has made this art-market recession less painful than past slowdowns—such as after the 1989 crash when the Japanese ceased buying Impressionist art—is a larger, more globalized art trade. Joining the pre-existing mix of collectors from the United States and Europe are newly minted millionaires from Asia, the Middle East, Russia and South America, where economies have grown, not contracted. 

It comes as no surprise, then, that the auction houses that dominate New York, London and Paris are expanding their reach by hiring specialists, and establishing dedicated sales and offices in cities such as Istanbul, Doha, Moscow and Hong Kong. Even if the buying is not yet on par with sales in New York or London, the mood in these new locations is, at the very least, opportunistic. And regional auctions—from Ayyam Gallery’s sales in Dubai and Beirut to India’s Saffronart, Borobudur in Jakarta and Singapore, Ravenel in Taipei, Est-Ouest in Tokyo and Seoul Auction from Korea, as well as the government-backed Poly International and China Guardian in Beijing—all thrive on local know-how. Auctioneers big and small are aware of these new markets’ potential and capitalize on their name recognition and the projected image of “transparency” of the auction format

What Sold: Blue Chip

In London, Indian modernist works have brought in steady returns. At Christie’s and Sotheby’s June sales for Indian modern and contemporary art, both houses benefited from a pent-up demand from collectors who had mostly abstained from buying since the beginning of the recession. Christie’s rolled out a two-part sale, beginning with works from the estate of Progressive painter Francis Newton Souza. The artist’s Red Curse (1962), which depicts nude woman cowering before a raging beast, sold for GBP 881,250, more than three times its high estimate. The following day, fellow modernist SH Raza exceeded expectations with his 1983 canvas Saurashtra, a synthesis of Indian iconography and a lifetime obsession with formalism. With a low estimate of £1.3 million, it landed in the private collection of Kiran Nadar for £2.39 million. 

Hong Kong is now the third-largest art auction market in the world after New York and London. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s hold two sales annually in Hong Kong, and each casts a wide net—comprising modern and contemporary works from Southeast and East Asia as well as India and Pakistan—to capture the broadest market share of the region’s new wealth. 

Chinese modernist artworks often bring the highest bids. Popular names include Sanyu, the late Wu Guanzhong and Chu Teh-Chun. Abstract expressionist painter Zao Wou-ki is also coveted, and his painting 4.4.1959 (1959), which graced the catalog cover of Sotheby’s sale of 20th Century Chinese Art on April 5, was also the top lot that day, selling for double its estimate at USD 2.67 million. Similarly, at Christie’s on May 29, the late Chen Yifei—known for his nostalgic oil paintings of canal villages and Chinese maidens—soared beyond expectations. Christie’s gave a modest low estimate of USD 513,000 for Chen’s unusual oil painting String Quartet (1986), a large horizontal work depicting four female European musicians. It ultimately hammered home for $7.8 million.

Sotheby’s has worked hard to develop their Southeast Asian sales through the vision of specialist Mok Kim Chuan. Although Sotheby’s sales also include emerging and midcareer artists from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, the market craves traditionally rendered 20th-century paintings. On April 5, Sotheby’s broke new ground with Lee Man Fong’s Bali Life (c. 1965), which, depicting villagers in an idyllic setting, sold for twice its high estimate at USD 3.2 million. His previous record was $1.04 million for Magnificent Horses (1966), at the same sale in 2009.

What Didn’t: Soft Market

Older works by living artists are crossing the threshold into the “establishment.” Takashi Murakami, for one, has witnessed a recent comeback at auction. At Phillips, his editioned fiberglass sculpture Miss ko² (1997) elicited a bid at $6.8 million; seven years earlier at Christie’s, another edition of Miss ko² sold for a small fraction of that, at $567,500. 

But newer works by emerging or midcareer artists continue to experience erratic auction results. During the peak of the market, artists with hardly any track record somehow appeared on the block and, miraculously, found at least one bidder. Names that circulated in exhibitions, both commercial and noncommercial, such as Thukral & Tagra, Feng Zhengjie and Shirin Aliabadi, garnered press coverage due to their auction prices doubling and tripling on a frequent basis. 

When the market frenzy ended in September 2008, many of the artists who had made headlines due to their extraordinary auction prices seemed to retreat into their studios, their work rarely appearing at auction, or dropping back to 2006 prices, and some even failing to sell. But now buyers are coming back. At Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening sale in London on June 28, for instance, Bharti Kher’s iconic bindi-covered sleeping elephant, The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own (2006), was given a strong estimate of GBP 700,000. Originally owned by the notorious dealer Pierre Huber and one of an edition of three—the others sit, respectively, in the private collection of Frank Cohen and in an Australian museum—the sculpture ultimately sold for £993,250. 

Prices for artists hovering in the limbo between emerging and established continue to suffer a correction. Farhad Moshiri, who broke the million-dollar mark with his 2007 Swarovski crystal and glitter painting of the Farsi word Eshgh (“Love”) at Bonhams’ Dubai sale in March 2008, continues to have mixed results. On October 20, 2010, at Sotheby’s London sale of Arab & Iranian art, three Moshiri canvases were on offer—from depictions of ancient vessels to frosted wedding cakes. All paintings were created in the past five years, with only two going just above the high estimate. The average price for the works sold was USD 140,310.

Where We Are Going: The New World Order

China is poised to become the auction capital of the world, with more than 5,000 auction houses on the mainland, while abroad, Chinese buyers are making spectacular conquests. The latest Chinese win, at the small third-tier auction house Bainbridge’s in London, was a Qing dynasty ceramic vase, which was estimated at $800,000 but sold for $69.5 million. 

Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales in Hong Kong are fueled by the same enormous mainland appetite. In October at Sotheby’s sale for Asian Contemporary, Zhang Xiaogang’s rare masterpiece, Chapter of a New Century—Birth of the People’s Republic of China II (1992) witnessed heated bidding from mainlanders. Offered with a guaranteed estimate of $2.69 million, this unique mixed-media work is the counterpart to a similar painting, Chapter of a New Century—Birth of the People’s Republic of China I (1992), offered in 2007 at Sotheby’s New York, where it fetched just over $3 million from a collector in Europe. At the October sale, bidding reached $5 million, with three different clients jockeying for the historic painting, one on the phone and two mainland Chinese buyers who were in the room. It finally found a home at a private museum in Shanghai for an impressive price tag of $6.69 million—a new auction record for Zhang Xiaogang and the highest price paid
that evening at Sotheby’s. 

At the opposite end of Asia, the oil- and gas-rich emirate Qatar is another country vying for the auction houses’ attention. In October, various rumors and speculation made headlines when Qatar’s Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani told the Financial Times (FT) that he was interested in purchasing Christie’s. Unlike publicly held Sotheby’s, Christie’s is privately owned by French luxury-goods tycoon François Pinault, and could be bought in full. The explanation for al-Thani’s interest? He told the FT, “We are building a museum and it [Christie’s] has links with the stuff we are collecting for our museum.” Expect more wild trophy hunting in this brave new world.