Surging Demand for Young Artists Powered Sotheby’s $122.5 Million Contemporary Art Sale in Hong Kong

The 45-lot sale saw records set for Avery Singer, Salman Toor, and others.

Sotheby's senior director of Hong Kong Ian McGinlay served as
Sotheby's senior director of Hong Kong Ian McGinlay served as auctioneer for the contemporary art evening sale. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Hopes were high heading into Sotheby’s evening sale of contemporary art in Hong Kong on April 19. Last year, Asia proved to be a saving grace for the locked-down art industry, overtaking the United States as the largest auction market in the world. The latest test for the market in Asia suggests that demand remains broad and lively, but not frothy. The 45-lot sale totaled HK$952 million ($122.5 million), a record high for a contemporary art sale at Sotheby’s Asia, according to the house.

The lineup was full of international names, from young sought-after stars like Salman Toor, Matthew Wong, and Avery Singer, to more established figures like Dana Schutz and Yoshitomo Nara, to such blue-chip masters as Clyfford Still and Roy Lichtenstein. There were also plenty of high-profile Chinese art stars such as Zeng Fanzhi and Zhang Xiaogang.

Zhang Xiaogang, <i>Bloodline - Mother and Son No.1</i> (1993). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline – Mother and Son No.1 (1993). Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Helmed by auctioneer and Sotheby’s Hong Kong senior director Ian McGinlay, the sale followed the same format as the house’s other major evening sales over the past year, with a hybrid live and virtual bidding structure (including an audience of IRL bidders in Hong Kong). Additional bids were beamed in from specialists on phone banks in London and New York as well as online.

New records were set for Toor, who was recently the subject of a solo show at the Whitney Museum (Three Boys sold for HK$5.6 million / $723,182, more than seven times its high estimate), and for Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai-Violet Hwami (Skye weNehanda fetched HK$3.8 million / $486,410). Asian collectors were behind new records for Joel Mesler (HK$1.5 million / $194,564), Avery Singer (HK$6.7 million / $863,314), and Toyin Ojih Odutola, according to Sotheby’s.

Avery Singer, <i>Untitled (Cube)</i> (2018). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Avery Singer, Untitled (Cube) (2018). Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Much of the house’s success was orchestrated in advance, as 14 of the lots featured third-party financial guarantees.

Although Sotheby’s reported the sale was white-glove, meaning every lot sold, it declined to mention that the 46th lot—a work by Handiwirman Saputra—was withdrawn just before the auction drew to a close (likely because there was not enough interest, but sparing the house an officially unsold lot). Other than this hiccup, the sale proceeded smoothly, except when a lot reopened after a bid from London came in late over the airwaves. (Given the elaborate technology involved in pulling off these hybrid sales, it’s surprising there weren’t more glitches.)

Roy Lichtenstein, Reflections on Thud! (1990). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Roy Lichtenstein, Reflections on Thud! (1990). Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

The sale’s top lot was Still’s abstract PH-568 (1965), which carried a third-party guarantee and sold for HK$126 million ($16.2 million) on a single bid to a client on the phone with fine-art chairwoman Amy Cappellazzo in New York. The second-highest price was HK$118 million ($15.2 million) for a Gerhard Richter abstract, Schwefel (Sulphur) (1985).

Another top lot was Roy Lichtenstein’s Reflections on Thud! (1990), which sold to a client bidding with Hong Kong senior director Yuki Terase for a hammer price of HK$94 million ($12 million).

Yoshitomo Nara, Frog Girl (1998). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Yoshitomo Nara, Frog Girl (1998). Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

A star of this evening’s sale was Japanese sensation Yoshitomo Nara, whose market is riding high following the reopening of his major retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Of the three Naras offered, the priciest was Frog Girl (1998), which sold for HK$96.3 million ($12 million), besting its estimate of HK$40 million–HK$80 million.

The contest came down to a three-way bidding war between two Hong Kong specialists and one New York specialist on the phone with their respective clients. One of the Hong Kong specialists won it on a hammer bid of HK$82 million ($10.5 million).

Matthew Wong, Beginning (2017). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Matthew Wong, Beginning (2017). Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Notably, the sale boasted a particular depth of bidding for young artists whose work is particularly difficult to secure on the primary market. Beginning (2017) a painting by sought-after late Canadian artist Matthew Wong, sold for HK$26.8 million ($3.4 million), more than four times its high estimate.


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