‘Woo-Hoo!’: A Global Hunger for Hot Young Figurative Art Propelled Phillips and Poly’s Hong Kong Sales to a ‘White Glove’ $90 Million

Records abound for buzzed-about stars.

Auctioneer Jonathan Crockett selling Yoshitomo Nara's Missing in Action Image courtesy Phillips and Poly.

“Woo-hoo!” said Jonathan Crockett, Phillips’s chairman of Asia, as he brought down the gavel on the last lot of a two-hour hybrid auction in Hong Kong and Beijing on Tuesday. The sale, held in partnership with mainland auction house Poly, served to underscore the growing demand in Asia for younger, emerging art stars. 

All told, the sale series brought in $90 million (HK$701.5 million), handily exceeding the presale estimate of $46 million to $66 million. (Final prices include buyers’ premium; estimates do not.)

The evening sale accounted for $63 million (HK$492 million), while the day sale generated $27 million (HK$209 million). Every lot offered was sold (though purists might quibble with the label “white-glove” given that two lots were withdrawn before the evening sale began). 

A total of 17 new auction records were set for artists including Salman Toor, Emily Mae Smith, and Loie Hollowell. Some of their prices eclipsed previous highs set as recently as last month. 

Yoshitomo Nara, Missing In Action (2000). Image courtesy Phillips and Poly Auction.

Yoshitomo Nara, Missing In Action (2000). Image courtesy Phillips and Poly Auction.

“These results are a testament to the winning success of this fruitful collaboration between two of the leading auction houses in the market,” Wang Wei, managing director of Beijing Poly International Auction Co. Ltd and director of Poly Auction Hong Kong Limited, said in a statement. 

The two houses first collaborated last year on sales in Hong Kong in December and July; this marked the first time they held a joint auction livestreamed across Hong Kong and Beijing.

Organizers said they saw unprecedented online participation, with more than 800 bidders—twice the volume of last season—from 45 countries.

The top lot of the evening sale was Yoshitomo Nara’s Missing in Action (2000), which fetched just under $16 million (HK$123 million), the second highest auction price for an artist whose market shows no sign of slowing down. The same work sold at Phillips in London in 2015 for $3 million, according to the Artnet Price Database. (Another work from 2000, Knife Behind Back, holds Nara’s auction record, having sold for $25 million in Hong Kong in 2019.)

Lower-priced works by Nara also performed well, including Missing In Action 2 (2002), which sold for $905,000 (HK$7 million) and Shallow Puddles Part 2 (2006), which fetched $1.2 million (HK$9,325,000), eclipsing its high estimate of $833,000.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (940-7), (2015). Image courtesy Phillips and Poly Auction.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (940-7), (2015). Image courtesy Phillips and Poly Auction.

The second-highest price of the evening was $12.3 million (HK$95 million) for Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (940-7) (2015), which eked over its high estimate of $12.1 million. While appetite for Richter’s work has gotten picky in London and New York, his abstracts have been generating strong prices in Hong Kong of late.  

Also figuring into the top lots was a moody woods scene by Matthew Wong, the Canadian painter who died in 2019 and whose work sparks vigorous bidding wars nearly every time it hits the block. Figure in a Night Landscape (2017) sold for $4.7 million (HK$36.6 million), more than quadruple its $1 million high estimate. It narrowly missed breaking Wong’s current auction record of $4.9 million, set in December 2020 during Phillips and Poly’s Hong Kong sale.

Banksy, Laugh Now Panel A Image courtesy Phillips and Poly Auction.

Banksy, Laugh Now Panel A Image courtesy Phillips and Poly Auction.

Banksy also cemented his international appeal with the sale of Laugh Now Panel A, (2002) one of the anonymous artist’s most famous works, which depicts a monkey wearing a sandwich board that reads “laugh now but one day we’ll be in charge.” It sold for $3.1 million (HK$24 million) against an estimate of $2.8 million to $4.1 million.

Perhaps the most energy centered around young artists whose works carry long wait lists on the primary market. Girl with Driver (2013) by Salman Toor, whose recent solo show at the Whitney Museum was a runaway hit, sold for $890,055 (HK$6.9 million). It eclipsed the previous high of $867,000 achieved less than a month ago at Sotheby’s. 

Emily Mae Smith, <i>Broom Life</I> (2014) Image courtesy Phillips and Poly Auction.

Emily Mae Smith, Broom Life (2014) Image courtesy Phillips and Poly Auction.

Another artist whose top price was shattered yet again is Emily Mae Smith. Broom Life (2014), featuring her signature anthropomorphic broomstick character, sold for $1.6 million (HK$12.3 million), more than 15 times its high estimate of $77,000. Her previous record of $359,000 (£277,200) is just a few months old, having been set at Phillips London this past October.

A 2018 painting by Loie Hollowell, whose lush abstract paintings are currently the subject of an exhibition at the Long Museum in Shanghai (through July 11), shattered its $231,000 high estimate to sell for a record $1.4 million (HK$10.9 million).

The top lot of the June 7 day sale was Chinese artist Liu Ye’s The Second Story (1995) which took $1.7 million (HK$13 million). During that sale, new highs were set for Sanya Kantarovsky; Madelynn Green; Ye Linghan; Katherine Bernhardt; Allison Zuckerman; Hopare; Angel Otero; Ayako Rokkaku; Chiharu Shiota; Kitti Narod; Miya Ando; and teamLab.

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