It has to be a sign of the new reality we’re living in that no one batted an eye as a major Christie’s evening auction was beamed live around the world from Hong Kong today. Specialists on phone banks in London, and those operating during the early morning hours in New York, jumped in and out of the competition for the lots on offer in the 20th/21st Century Art sale, alongside bidders in the room in Hong Kong, as well as those online and on phones.
In that same vein, just a few years ago it would have been hard to imagine an auctioneer making a pre-sale announcement that cryptocurrency would be accepted for certain lots “unless the buyer is in mainland China,” not to mention calling out strong bidding on the auction house’s online “LIVE” platform, from locations ranging from Michigan to Panama.
But such is the new post-pandemic reality, where major evening sales are now a mix of IRL and virtual thanks to the technology the major auction houses have fully adopted over the past two or so years, to be able to hold their seasonal sales in the face of sporadic lockdowns.
Tonight was also the evening sale debut for Liang-Lin Chen, the specialist and head of sale for Hong Kong, since executive Elaine Kwok left the company earlier this year. Chen did a skillful and impressive job of navigating the bidding as it poured in from both the immediate salesroom and around the world.
The total for the evening sale was HK$1.4 billion ($184 million), which exceeded the low end of expectations. Of 59 lots on offer (three were withdrawn), 55—or 93 percent—were sold.
The sale followed a somewhat similar pattern as was seen at the recent New York auctions where bidding took off and was often frothy for work by younger up-and-coming artists at more moderate price levels. This was reflected in the 11 new auction records notched for artists such as Hernan Bas and Zhang Enli, as well as Scott Kahn, Firenze Lai, Ayako Rokkaku, and Rhee Seundja.
Notably, a new record was set for a market star, Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie, at HK$81 million ($10.3 million), for Pie Fight Interior 12 (2014). It was scooped up after just a few bids by Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of 20th- and 21st-century art, bidding from New York for a client. The previous Ghenie record is just over a week old, set on May 19 when Degenerate Art (2016) sold for $9.3 million at Sotheby’s New York.
But when it came time for some other trophy works, in the tens of millions, bidding was often restrained and thin, with major works hovering around the low estimate and falling under the hammer after just a few bids. Monet’s painting Saule pleureur (1918–19), with a low estimate of HK$95 million ($12 million), even failed to get near that level in the bidding and was one of the evening’s casualties.
Of the lots on offer, 20—or about a third—carried guarantees, so they would sell no matter what. These included the top lot of the auction, a large work by Chinese French star painter Zao Wou-ki. 29.09.64. (1964), which sold for HK$278 million ($35.4 million). As always, a return trip to the auction block gives some indication of where demand for a particular work or artist is at. This work was last sold in 2017 by Christie’s, when it made HK$152.9 million ($19.6 million), according to the Artnet Price Database.
The second-highest price of the night was another trophy lot, Pablo Picasso’s Buste d’homme dans un cadre (1969), which came from the estate of Sean Connery. Auctioneer Georgina Hilton, who took up the rostrum midway through the sale—and was sporting a snazzy white jacket and a bow tie—joked when she noted that it was owned by the former James Bond star: “Now, my outfit hopefully makes sense to you all.” She opened the bidding at HK$100 million ($12.7 million) and it was quickly hammered down to a specialist on the phone bank in the room for a premium inclusive price of HK$174.95 million ($22.3 million).
The next top result was for the sought-after Japanese mega-star Yoshitomo Nara, when Wish World Peace (2014), a close-up portrait of one of his signature little girls with huge eyes, sold for HK$97 million ($12.4 million). The work, which was guaranteed, last appeared at auction in 2016, when it sold for $2.3 million, according to the Artnet Price Database.
One of David Hockney’s more recent, vibrantly colored landscape works, the hexagonal-shaped Nichols Canyon III (2017), which was also guaranteed, took in HK$94.8 million ($12 million).
Along with the record-setting Ghenie, another work by the artist, Self Portrait In 1945 (2014) attracted bidding interest from Hong Kong specialists, as well as in London, but still fell below the low estimate when it sold for HK$10.65 million ($1.35 million), including premium.
The sale kicked off with some buzzy names, such as Hilary Pecis, whose quiet, skillfully-rendered interiors have been drawing acclaim. Big Boy (2020), shot past its high estimate of HK$2 million ($255,000), to sell for HK$9.2 million ($1.1 million). At least five bidders chased after it.
And Andre Butzer’s Untitled (2020) painting, featuring his own signature characters with cartoonishly big eyes against a day-glo pink background, also sparked intense competition from at least seven bidders. Chen noted the aforementioned online bids rolling in from Michigan and Panama, though they ultimately lost out to intense competition from a Christie’s Hong Kong specialist bidding for her client and winning it for a premium inclusive HK$3.3 million ($417,000).
It was another win for a painting by the late African American artist Ernie Barnes, whose works have been getting some much overdue attention lately. Listen Up! (1980) showing a group of people with elongated limbs in a jubilant dance, took HK$7.6 million ($963,000). That’s now the third highest auction result for the artist after his work first broke the $1 million mark twice last week alone.
But the final offering of the night, an NFT (non-fungible token) by Japanese star Takashi Murakami, which was tacked on to the end of the sale as a standalone lot, proved anticlimactic. Bidding on CloneX #4346 (minted December 12, 2021), by creators listed as “Clone X – X TAKASHI MURAKAMI by RTFKT Inc” met with lackluster bidding that went nowhere near the low HK$5 million ($637,000), and the lot was pronounced as unsold.
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