A Monumental Canvas by Yoshitomo Nara Sells for $25 Million in Hong Kong, Shattering the Artist’s Previous Auction Record

It is the latest in a slew of artist records to be set at auction in Hong Kong.

Yoshitomo Nara Knife Behind Back (2000). Courtesy Sotheby's Hong Kong.
Yoshitomo Nara Knife Behind Back (2000). Courtesy Sotheby's Hong Kong.

A work by the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara sold for nearly $25 million at Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale in Hong Kong on Saturday, smashing the artist’s previous auction record by a factor of five. As protesters flooded the streets of central Hong Kong over the weekend, the sale carried on—and, perhaps surprisingly, outperformed expectations. The auction brought in HK$538 million ($68.6 million), exceeding its pre-sale high estimate of HK$408 million ($52 million).

Six bidders duked it out for a lengthy ten minutes to get their hands on Nara’s Knife Behind Back (2000), which ultimately sold for $24.9 million with premium. The artist completed the canvas—his largest ever to come to auction—the same year he returned to Japan after spending 12 years in Germany. In the painting, one of his trademark wide-eyed children stares out crankily at the viewer with one hand behind her back; only the title offers an ominous indication of what she is holding in her hand. 

Four of Nara’s five top auction results have been set between 2018 and 2019, according to the artnet Price Database. His previous record was established in May when Sleepless Night (Cat) (1999) sold at Christie’s Hong Kong for $4.5 million with premium. 

Liu Ye, <i>Smoke</i> (2001-2002). Courtesy Sotheby's Hong Kong.

Liu Ye, Smoke (2001–2). Courtesy Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

The Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale on Saturday also saw a record set for the Chinese artist Liu Ye’s monumental canvas, Smoke (2001–2). Five bidders chased the work to a final price of HK$52 million ($6.7 million) in a dedicated sale of Chinese contemporary art from the collection of Baroness Gillion Crowet. Liu’s previous record was HK$43 million ($5.5 million), achieved at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2013.

The latest results arrive as Hong Kong continues to gain traction as a venue for high-octane contemporary art at auction, where new records can be seen for both Asian and non-Asian artists alike. Last April, sales at Sotheby’s Hong Kong set new world auction records for the Ethiopian-born, New York-based painter Julie Mehretu and market darling KAWS, whose twist on the Simpsons sold for 15 times its pre-sale high estimate

Now, all eyes will be on the November sales in New York to see if Nara’s work makes another appearance and can maintain its market momentum, or whether Knife Behind Back will be more of a one-hit wonder. 


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