Hong Kong Auctions Bounce Back Modestly
By The Editors
With international visitors still relatively scarce, Hong Kong’s rebound to its vaunted status as “Asia’s World City” is likely to take more time than many industries would like to see. The art business is no exception, as major commercial events took place in March and early April, including auctions and two art fairs, which overwhelmingly attracted locals and visitors from mainland China. Meanwhile buyers are now accustomed to the many ways of conducting remote purchases, whether on the phone, online, or even through third parties in Hong Kong. At auctions, larger international trends such as the competition for younger artists and figurative painting continued to prevail, while several artists from mainland China saw a boost in prices for their art on the secondary market.
At its new Asia headquarters in the West Kowloon Cultural District Tower, directly opposite from M+, Phillips Hong Kong held its first 20th Century & Contemporary Art sales on March 30 and 31. The evening sale of 40 lots (two were withdrawn) raked in HKD 351 million (USD 45 million) and the day sale brought in a further HKD 121.5 million (USD 15.5 million) for a combined total of HKD 472.5 million (USD 60.2 million).
The evening sale’s highlights were leading auction names. Yoshitomo Nara’s blue-eyed adolescent in a yellow outfit holding a pair of wooden divining sticks, Lookin’ for a Treasure (1995), brought in HKD 83.9 million (USD 10.7 million). From the same year, Yayoi Kusama’s squat yellow Pumpkin (1995) canvas hit HKD 56 million (USD 7 million), above its estimate of HKD 50 million (USD 6.4 million). An Infinity Dots painting from 2001 earned HKD 27.7 million (USD 3.5 million), as Kusama-mania washed over Hong Kong in early 2023, with an international Louis Vuitton branding collaboration and a major retrospective at M+.
Among younger artists at Phillips, Matthew Wong’s path through a colorful forest, The Road (2018), earned HKD 36 million (USD 4.6 million), just above its high estimate. Younger female painters—Lucy Bull, Loie Hollowell, Lauren Quin, Louise Bonnet, Christina Quarles, Anna Park, Cheng Xinyi, among them—buoyed Phillips’s sale, with many handsomely topping high estimates, though a 2007 untitled painting from recent favorite Ayako Rokkaku failed to sell. The opening lot, an abstracted portrait, Mother of Suns of Thunder (2019), by Genesis Tramaine, whom Phillips described as “a definite lamb of God,” attracted HKD 2.67 million (USD 340,000) above the high estimate of HKD 500,000 (USD 63,700). An earlier painting by Japanese manga-inspired artist Mr., The Endless Landscape of This Reality (2008), outperformed its HKD 2 million (USD 255,000) high estimate to pass just above HKD 5 million (USD 641,000), and Liu Ye’s Flagship No. 1 (1997) peaked at HKD 6.99 million (USD 890,000).
Phillips’s spring 2023 evening sale took in 65 percent more than the 2022 edition in Hong Kong, and overall Phillips earned 33 percent more than the previous June’s haul of HKD 356 million (USD 45.4 million) and its comparable late 2022 tally of HKD 351 million (USD 44.9 million). However, Phillips didn’t come close to its pandemic-era high two years ago in spring 2021 sales of HKD 701 million (USD 90 million).
For the 50th anniversary of its first sale in Asia, Sotheby’s Hong Kong showcased heavyweights from across the range of luxury goods, including Yamazaki whisky, handbags, an imperial jade bead necklace, sneakers worn by basketball legend Michael Jordan, and a Ferrari F1 racecar driven by Michael Schumacher. Sales of Chinese works of art topped HKD 1.64 billion (USD 208.9 million) for the first time in nine years, with Zhang Daqian’s painting Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen (1973) bringing in HKD 251.6 million (USD 32.1 million) and a falangcai bowl with a pair of swallows achieving HKD 198.2 million (USD 25.3 million), among other strong results for porcelain and ceramic wares.
Sotheby’s Hong Kong faired less triumphantly with its Modern and Contemporary Art sales, totaling HKD 1.4 billion (USD 172 million) across evening and day sales on April 5–6, compared to its April 2022 evening and day sales of HKD 1.56 billion (USD 199 million), a decline of 13 percent year-to-year.
The 50th Anniversary Contemporary Art Evening sale on April 5 raked in HKD 671 million (USD 85.5 million) from 43 lots (only two went unsold), down from last year’s tally of HKD 746 million (USD 95 million). Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin (L) (2014), the first monumental bronze from an edition of eight to appear at auction, achieved HKD 62.6 million (USD 8 million), exceeding its high estimate of HKD 60 million. It was one of five works by Kusama that sold for a combined total of HKD 180.1 million (USD 23 million), including a Mirror Room installation with colored LED lights, My Heart is Flying to the Universe (2018), at HKD 25.9 million (USD 3.3 million).
Many canvases sold squarely in the middle of their estimates, such as sale leader Yoshitomo Nara’s standing, doe-eyed adolescent In the Milky Lake (2012), at HKD 100.6 million (USD 12.8 million), between the estimate range of HKD 80–120 million (USD 10.2–15.3 million). Similarly Matthew Wong’s River at Dusk (2018) sold for HKD 52.3 million (USD 6.7 million), in the middle of its estimate range of HKD 40–60 million (USD 5.1–7.6 million), but higher than Wong’s other similarly hued 2018 canvas at Phillips the week prior. As at Phillips, painters Lucy Bull, Christina Quarles, Louise Bonnet, Anna Park, and Loie Hollowell all performed well, with Hollowell hitting a new record high at nearly HKD 18 million (USD 2.3 million) for the tantric-like abstraction Standing in Red (2019). Tomokazu Matsuyama’s manga-equestrian painting Nice Quiet Hot Tears (2018) flowed for nearly HKD 5.1 million (USD 647,000), almost three times its high estimate.
Chinese contemporary artists with dedicated followings did well. Hao Liang’s triptych on silk Theology and Evolution (2011), showing a rabbit transforming into a man, fetched HKD 24.7 million (USD 3.1 million). Liu Ye’s A View of My Teacher’s Back (2004), from a series that is featured in M+’s Sigg Collection, garnered a top bid of HKD 22.2 million (USD 2.8 million). Duan Jianyu’s Sister No. 15 (2008), featuring a fictional airline flight attendant and leading a menagerie of suitcase-toting animals across a golden desert, found a home at HKD 7.4 million (USD 940,000).
Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s Modern Evening sale on April 5 brought in HKD 464 million (USD 59 million) and the Modern Day sale HKD 68 million (USD 8.7 million), compared to HKD 543 million (USD 69.2 million) and HKD 108 million (USD 13.8 million), respectively, in 2022. The top earner was Pablo Picasso’s portrait of his young wife Françoise Gilot, Femme dans un fauteuil (1948), which sold for HKD 93.1 million (USD 11.9 million), below its HKD 100 million estimate. More highly sought after was Joan Miró’s untitled 1947 blue painting, which brought 40 bids before arriving at HKD 50.6 million (USD 6.4 million), a record for the artist in Asia.
Among Chinese artists, four works by Zao Wou-Ki brought in nearly HKD 132.5 million (USD 16.9 million), with 11.08.99 – Après l'éclipse (1999) attracting a high bid of HKD 48.9 million (USD 6.2 million) and beating out the final price of 25.03.85 (1985), which went for HKD 45.2 million (USD 5.8 million), despite the latter’s higher estimates. Septuagenarian painter Pang Jiun’s fresh-to-the-market canvas Spring in Blossom (2020), inspired by Claude Monet, Frédéric Chopin, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, hit HKD 8.5 million (USD 1.1 million) above high estimate of HKD 5 million (USD 637,000). Lalan’s untitled vertical abstraction from 1990–92 sold for HKD 5.96 million (USD 759,000), soaring above its HKD 4.5 million (USD 573,000) high estimate. Of the few southeast Asian offerings, Le Pho’s La famille dans le jardin (c. 1938), sold for HKD 18.6 million (USD 2.4 million), a high for the artist’s works and a mark of continued interest in Vietnamese modernism.
For Phillips, early 2023 proved to be a better season than the year before, while Sotheby’s Hong Kong saw a dip in its sales of modern and contemporary art. Yet neither house was able to surpass the peaks of its pandemic sales, suggesting that the auction houses haven’t quite yet tapped into the art-buying moods of the post-pandemic era as Hong Kong’s and greater China’s economies are still in recovery mode.