• Market
  • Jul 09, 2020

The Bidding Battle for Matthew Wong

Auction newcomer MATTHEW WONG’s oil painting Warmth (2017), just sold at Phillips Hong Kong for USD 335,470, is the latest of several works by the late painter to significantly exceed pre-sale estimates. Courtesy Phillips.

The late Chinese-Canadian artist Matthew Wong (1984–2019), known for his colorful, contemporary takes on post-impressionist-style landscapes, may be on his way to becoming an auction favorite. Phillips Hong Kong’s 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening sale on July 8 became the third auction this year where a canvas by Wong blew through pre-sale estimates.

The Phillips evening sale achieved HKD 200 million (USD 25.7 million), selling 20 works from its 22-lot auction. While results were solid, marking a ten percent increase from 2019, it was the opening lot, Wong’s oil-on-canvas Warmth (2017), that spurred excitement. The red-colored vertical landscape attracted 23 remote and in-person bidders, hammering down at HKD 2.6 million (USD 335,470), four times its high estimate. 

Just one week earlier, on July 2, Phillips New York had sold two other paintings by Wong, the oil painting Mood Room and a gouache-and-watercolor Landscape with Young Bather (both 2018), for USD 848,000 and USD187,500, respectively, soaring far and above the USD 80,000 and USD 20,000 estimates.

Wong’s paintings have become the surprise sensation in a year of postponed and consolidated auctions. Less than two weeks ago, the Toronto-born and Hong Kong-raised painter, who tragically died in October 2019 at the age of 35 by suicide, made auction record at Sotheby’s New York’s virtual Contemporary Art Evening Auction. There, Realm of Appearances (2018), his other warm-toned landscape, of a much larger size compared to Warmth, landed home at nearly 23 times its high estimate of USD 1.82 million with 59 bidders from the United States, Europe, and Asia vying for the work. This was a remarkable result considering the work was reportedly purchased for just USD 22,000 in 2018, and that Wong’s work was offered by Sotheby’s for the first time just two months earlier. In May, a small Untitled (2018) watercolor-on-paper made USD 62,500 at the house’s online Contemporary Art Day sale, where it had been modestly estimated at USD 10,000–15,000.

Wong’s debut season in the spotlight is carrying on. Christie’s also has high hopes for him, offering his oil painting Homecoming (2017) on July 10 in the Hong Kong leg of its highly anticipated relay-format auction, ONE: A Global Sale of the 20th Century, which spans Hong Kong, Paris, London, and New York. The landscape depicting a house and fields is among ten other works being sold in Hong Kong for the sale, which includes established auction names such as Yayoi Kusama, Zao Wou-ki, George Condo, and Gerhard Richter. This is the first time the house has brought a work by Wong to the market, and it has estimated the piece at HKD 460,000 to 640,000 (USD 59,650–82,990). It was created only three years ago, and has changed hands at least four times since initially purchased from New York’s Karma gallery. 

In his relatively brief career, Wong was shown by Karma, which continues to represent his estate, according to the South China Morning Post. The New York gallery first presented him in 2016 at its Matthew-Higgs-curated group exhibition “Outside,” and went on to host a solo show for Wong in 2018, garnering positive reviews. His second solo at Karma, “Blue,” featuring cool-toned works, opened as scheduled on November 2019 shortly after his death, but was not a selling exhibition. Writing about his posthumous show, The New York Times called him “one of the most talented painters of his generation.”

A self-taught painter, Wong studied cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and photography at the City University of Hong Kong School of Creative Media. He took up painting in 2012, and reportedly created approximately 1,000 works before his untimely death. Now, many of these works are suddenly among the most sought-after in the world. 

Lauren Long is ArtAsiaPacific’s news and web editor.

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