Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s $164.2 Million Modern and Contemporary Evening Sales Set New Records, Despite Market Uncertainties
Works by Pablo Picasso, Louise Bourgeois, Yoshitomo Nara, and Wu Guanzhong powered the auctions.
Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s modern and contemporary art evening sales on Wednesday, April 27, set records for a number of artists, despite a sluggish market clouded by the uncertainties of stringent pandemic measures and political tensions in the region.
A number of top lots sold above the HK$100 million ($13 million) benchmark, including Pablo Picasso’s portrait of his lover, the artist Dora Maar, and Plum Blossoms by 20th-century Chinese master Wu Guanzhong. Louise Bourgeois’s major sculpture, Spider IV, and Yoshitomo Nara’s painting Oddly Cozy also surpassed that threshold.
The totals of the sales—$164.2 million between the two events—fell within expectations, with high sell-through rates, even though the total for the Modern art evening auction was down slightly from last October, when more lots were offered. Nearly half the bidders participated online, with a significant number of phone bidders calling Sotheby’s specialists in the London and New York offices.
“The proportion of Asian activity in the sales this time is on a par with previous seasons, with Asian collectors from across the region accounting for 73 percent of buyers this evening,” Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s chair of Modern and contemporary art in Asia, told Artnet News after the sale. These were his first spring sales in Hong Kong since his relocation from London.
“As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, lockdown is not a deterrent to serious collectors,” he added.
Sotheby’s delayed the sales from their usual early April slots due to strict social-distancing measures in Hong Kong intended to combat a high pandemic mortality rate. In response, the auction house had to move its salesroom from the usual Convention and Exhibition Center in Hong Kong to its gallery at Pacific Place.
The five-hour charade, which was livestreamed online, comprised three individual sales: a Modern sale, a contemporary sale, and a single-lot sale of a De Beers 15.10 step-cut fancy vivid blue diamond, which sold for HK$451 million ($57.5 million) to a phone bidder above its $48 million presale estimate.
The Modern evening sale totaled $543 million ($69.2 million), within presale expectations of $52.5 million to $75.9 million. (Totals include fees; presale estimates do not.) The figure is a slight dip from last October’s Modern sale ($74.5 million) and is still significantly below the $99.2 million figure achieved last spring. That comes with a caveat: only 36 lots were included in this sale, compared to 44 lots in October. The sell-through rate was 95 percent, which Sotheby’s said was one of the highest. Three lots (Picasso, Li Huayi, and Fernando Zobel) had guarantees.
The star lot Picasso’s Dora Maar (1939), the first Maar portrait by the artist to be offered in Asia. It sold for HK$169.4 million ($21.6 million) to a Japanese collector, nearly 23 percent up from its HK$138 million ($17.6 million) presale estimate. It is now the second most expensive Picasso work sold in the region.
Later, Wu Guanzhong’s rare oil painting, Plum Blossoms from 1973, sold for $103.9 million ($13.2 million), within presale expectations. The late Vietnamese painter Le Pho achieved a new artist record with the sale of Figures in a Garden, a three-panel work originally shown in a 1973 exhibition in Palm Beach. The work sold for HK$17.9 million ($13.2 million), nearly six times the presale estimate.
Other records were set for works by Li Huayi, whose 2011 painting Forever Young sold for HK$12.5 million ($1.6 million); André Brasilier, whose 2014 painting Grande chevauchée du lac en automne went for HK$3.8 million ($481,761) to an in-room bidder; and Chinese-French female artist Lalan, whose work on paper, Les ombres bleu les monts bleu (1985), sold for HK$3.5 million ($176,600). Lalan has been featured in a number of exhibitions in the region in recent years, including a solo show at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center last year.
Five lots from the collection of Sir Run Run Shaw, the late Hong Kong entertainment mogul who founded Shaw Brothers’ Studio in 1958, were among the highlights. Included in the collection was Chen Yifei’s 1991 figurative painting Banquet, which sold for HK$54.5 million ($7 million), within expectations. Another work, Cheong Soo Pieng’s Brother and Sister (1976), sold for HK$3.5 million ($449,668), nearly five times its preale estimate. Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Baigneuse accoudée (1882), however, did not find a buyer.
Meanwhile, the contemporary evening sale totaled HK$746 million ($95 million), up from last October’s total of $75.4 million, but slightly less than last spring’s total of $122.5 million. Fourteen lots had guarantees. Four lots were withdrawn, including two works by Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang, one work by Yue Minjun, and a painting by Matthew Wong. More than 98 percent of the lots found a new home. About 25 percent of the buyers were 40 or under, according to Sotheby’s.
Louise Bourgeois’s Spider IV led the sale when it went for HK$129.2 million ($16.5 million), within expectations, making it the most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction in Asia, according to Sotheby’s. Nara’s 2013 work Oddly Cozy, making its auction debut, sold for HK$112 million ($14.3 million), within expectations.
New records were also achieved for younger artists, including Anna Weyant’s painting Josephine, which sold for HK$4 million ($513,878), nearly 10 times its presale estimate. Another work, The Ice Skater (2015) by Swiss artist Louise Bonnet, achieved a record for the painter, selling for HK$5.7 million ($573,525), nearly 13 times its estimate.
Some works in the sale could be bought with crypto currency, including three NFTs. Robert Alice’s Block 34 (51.895167° N, 1.4805° E) from Portraits of a Mind, an NFT accompanied with a 24k-gold-leaf and aluminum painting on canvas, sold for more than HK$5 million ($642,348) to a phone bidder represented by the Hong Kong office, marking a new record for the artist. Water-Worshipper (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat, who has been a favorite in Asian auctions in recent years, could not find a buyer, even though it could also be purchased with crypto.
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