By the Numbers: A Breakdown of Results from Sotheby’s Hong Kong ‘The Now’ and Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sales, April 2024

Get the stats behind the spin.

Auctioneer Ian McGinlay sells Yoshitomo Nara's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (2017) at Sotheby's in Hong Kong during its modern and contemporary art evening sale, April 5, 2024.

A soft market represents a test for art businesses, and Sotheby’s appeared to pass it on Friday in Hong Kong. Against a backdrop of a global market slowdown and economic uncertainties stemming from China’s property crisis, the auction giant managed to hold the line at its modern and contemporary art evening auctions, selling several key lots at prices within expectations.

The affair, which hauled in HK$673 million ($86 million) with fees, combined two back-to-back sales in a new format, making exact year-over-year comparisons difficult. Rather than placing modern and contemporary work into two separate sales, as it has done in the past in Hong Kong, the house combined those categories into a single auction and paired it with “The Now,” an ultra-contemporary sale it has run in New York and London.

The revamp of the categories followed disappointing results at last fall’s Hong Kong evening art sales. The scale of Friday’s sales was significantly smaller than the past two spring evening sales in Hong Kong, a possible indictor of the difficulty in securing consignments in this weaker market.

Sotheby’s drew solid results in the modern-contemporary section, nevertheless. The top-selling lot was Yoshitomo Nara’s widely exhibited I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (2017), which hammered for a within-estimate HK$81 million ($10.3 million). The work is said to have previously been owned by the Hong Kong tycoon, mega-collector, and fugitive from justice Joseph Lau.

Several other blue-chip works hammered above their low estimates in the sale, including pieces by Wu Guanzhong, Claude Monet, and Pablo Picasso. Only one work of the 41 works on offer failed to find a buyer, resulting in an exceptionally high sell-through rate of 97.6 percent (after withdrawals). However, the hammer total fell just short of the lower end of the presale expectations.

The image shows a painting of a child-like figure in Japanese manga style, with a round face, green eyes, shoulder length hair, in a green top against a light green background.

Yoshitomo Nara, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (2017). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

However, the debut of “The Now” sale in Asia, right before the modern-contemporary auction, was disappointing (in keeping with the downward trend highlighted in our recent Art Detective column). With only 14 lots on offer before withdrawals, the sale was small to begin with. Its cover lot, Nicolas Party’s colorful Still Life (2017), failed to find a buyer, and the sale’s hammer total was only a little more than half of the presale estimate, prior to withdrawals.

The evening had bidders from 21 countries, with 50 percent of them hailing from Asia. The top three winning bids came from either Greater China or the U.S., according to the house.

Notable sales from the doubleheader included Pablo Picasso’s late painting Le Peintre (1963), which sold to an Asian collector for HK$78.7 million (US$10 million), and Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Un Jardin à Sorrente (1881), which went to a Hong Kong-based collector for HK$24.3 million (US$3 million), making it the second-most-valuable work by the artist ever sold in Asia.

Wu Guanzhong’s Cooking Smokes from Houses (1963) had over 30 bids from two competing bidders, with the winner getting it for HK$11.9 million ($1.5 million).

The sale set an artist record for Arghavan Khosravi, whose canvas work The Miraj (2), 2021, sold for HK$406,400 (US$51,909). Fruits tropicaux (1969) by Wifredo Lam, the Cuban-born artist with Cantonese roots who is now having a retrospective at Asia Society Hong Kong, was sold for HK$11.3 million (US$1.4 million), a new auction record for the artist in Asia.

Below, the story by the numbers…

An abstract painting of color blocks and an eye

George Condo, Green Eyed Lady (2016). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

‘The Now’ Evening Sale

Total Sales After Fees: HK$39.4 million ($5 million)

Total Sales of Equivalent Sale Last Year: Not applicable

Hammer Total: HK$31.2 million ($3.98 million)

Top Seller: George Condo, Green Eyed Lady (2016); sold for HK$13.5 million ($1.7 million) with fees, hammered at HK$10.8 million ($1.4 million).

Lots on Offer After Withdrawals: 12

Lots Withdrawn: 2

Lots Sold: 10

Lots Bought In: 2

Sell-through Rate Excluding Withdrawals: 83 percent

Sell-through Rate Including Withdrawals: 71.4 percent

Presale Low Estimate Before Withdrawals: HK$60.9 million ($7.8 million)

Presale Low Estimate After Withdrawals: HK$50.9 million ($6.5 million)

Hammer Total vs. Presale Low Estimate Before Withdrawals: –HK$29.7 million (–$3.82 million)

Hammer Total vs. Presale Low Estimate After Withdrawals: –HK$19.7 million (–$2.52 million)

Lots Guaranteed: 1, George Condo, Green Eyed Lady (2016). (Sotheby’s did not disclose whether the lot was a house guarantee or a third-party guarantee.)

Total Low Estimate of Guaranteed Lots: HK$10 million ($1.28 million)

Lasting Memory: Dressed in a lemon-yellow blazer, Florence Ho, head of day and online sales contemporary art of Sotheby’s Asia, made a smart appearance as the sale’s auctioneer, but she could not find a buyer for the equally bright-colored Still Life (2017) by ultra-contemporary art star Nicolas Party. It had a low estimate of HK$20 million ($2.6 million ) but passed at HK$17 million ($2 million).

An abstract painting of a painter painting on a canvas

Pablo Picasso, Le Peintre (1963). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Total Sales After Fees: HK$633.96 million ($80.98 million)

Total Sales of Equivalent Sale Last Year: Not applicable. However, the combined total of Sotheby’s modern and contemporary art evening sales last fall was HK$544.7 million ($70.8 million), HK$1.14 billion ($144.6 million) last spring, and HK$1.3 billion ($164.3 million) in spring 2022.

Hammer Total: HK$518.4 million ($66.2 million)

Top Seller: Yoshitomo Nara’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (2017). Said to be one of the artist’s favorite works, it hammered at HK$81 million ($10.3 million), slightly above a presale estimate of HK$80 million ($10 million), which does not include fees. With fees, it came to HK$95.95 million ($12.3 million), going to a phone bidder represented by the London-based Simon Stock, Sotheby’s senior specialist for Impressionist and modern art, Europe and Asia. The work was underbid by an Asian collector.

Lots on Offer After Withdrawals: 41

Lots Withdrawn: 6

Lots Sold: 40

Lots Bought In: 1

Sell-through Rate Excluding Withdrawals: 97.6 percent

Sell-through Rate Including Withdrawals: 85 percent

Presale Low Estimate Before Withdrawals: HK$585.4 million ($74.7 million)

Presale Low Estimate After Withdrawals: HK$526 million ($67.2 million)

Hammer Total vs. Presale Low Estimate Before Withdrawals: –HK$67 million ($8.5 million)

Hammer Total vs. Presale Low Estimate After Withdrawals: –HK$7.6 million ($1 million)

Lots Guaranteed: 2, Pablo Picasso, Le Peintre (1963) and Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin (2019). (Sotheby’s did not disclose whether the guaranteed lots were backed by the house or a third party.)

Total Low Estimate of Guaranteed Lots: HK$94 million ($12.09 million)

Quote of the Night: “Don’t regret tomorrow,” auctioneer Ian McGinlay said, trying to encourage a phone bidder represented by Wendy Lin, Sotheby’s chairman Asia, to place another bid for the Nara. Stock’s bidder had just raised the price to HK$81 million ($10.3 million)—and would win it moments later for that number, plus fees.

Lasting Memory: “Sorry for ruining your dinner plans, everyone,” McGinlay said in the middle of the sale, awaiting bids on a work by the Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi. In fact, the pace of the entire evening was exceptionally slow, with some of the works selling only after seven to 10 minutes of back and forth between the staff at the phone bank and their bidders. The two auctions, totaling 53 lots, took nearly three hours to complete. After the last lot sold, there was a round of applause and a sigh of relief that the evening was over.

Parting Shot: The sales marked Sotheby’s final evening art auctions at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, which has witnessed the city’s rise as Asia’s art hub over the years, hosting major auctions as well as Art Basel Hong Kong. The house will stage its next sales at a 24,000-square-foot new headquarters in the heart of the city’s Central district that is set to open in July.

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