A $21.2 Million Picasso Soars to a New Record as Basquiat and Other Western Art Stars Dominate Sotheby’s Auctions in Hong Kong

Sales results point to Asia's growing appetite for western art while Asian blue-chip names Zao Wou-ki, Sanyu and Zeng Fanzhi were not sold.

Sale of top lot, Picasso's Femme Accroupie (1954), at Sotheby's Hong Kong modern art evening sale on Saturday. Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Sale of top lot, Picasso's Femme Accroupie (1954), at Sotheby's Hong Kong modern art evening sale on Saturday. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s has set new auction records in modern and contemporary art sales in Asia over Hong Kong’s auction weekend, with Western star lots by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Vincent van Gogh leading the sales.

Film director Wong Kar-wai’s NFT debut, the highlight of the season, went above pre-sale estimates and an entire group of his film collectibles were sold out. Overall, the sales set 15 new artists records, but some works by auction darlings such as Zao Wou-Ki and Sanyu featured in the modern art evening sale were unsold.

Hong Kong was hit by black rainstorm—the worst category of rainstorm warning and the first of its kind this year—on Friday before a typhoon moved in on Saturday, paralyzing a large part of the city. Fine Art Asia was closed on Saturday due to bad weather, but Sotheby’s modern and contemporary art evening sales went ahead as scheduled, live-streamed from Hong Kong with active biddings coming from Hong Kong, London, and New York.

<i>Nu endormi</i> by Sanyu. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Femme Accroupie (1954) by Pablo Picasso. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The five modern and contemporary art sales that took place across the two days as part of the annual autumn Hong Kong sales series totalled $185 million, bringing the year-to-date total of the sales of these categories in Asia to $600 million, a 35 percent increase from the same categories in Asia in 2020, Sotheby’s said. The day sales in both categories saw “an influx of new buyers,” the auctioneer noted, adding that American collectors also accounted for nearly 30 percent of the total amount bid in the modern art evening sale.

Western art alone sold for $114 million over the weekend. As of today, October 11, Sotheby’s has sold a record $330 million of western art in Asia in 2021, almost tripling the full year total of $120 million from last year—a solid proof of Asia’s growing appetite for western art.

“It’s clearly full steam ahead for collectors in Asia,” Alex Branczik, the new chair of modern and contemporary art at Sotheby’s Asia, said in a statement. “We’re seeing Hong Kong emerge as an ever-more important international hub for the market.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat's <i>Untitled (Red Warrior)</i> led the contemporary art evening sale at Sotheby's Hong Kong. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Red Warrior) (1982) led the contemporary art evening sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The top lot of the weekend was Picasso’s 1954 painting Femme Accroupie that went for sale in the modern art evening sale, which went under hammer for $21.2 million to a phone bidder represented by the Hong Kong team after rounds of bids coming from Hong Kong, London, and New York. The work, a portrait of Picasso’s second wife Jacqueline Roque, belonged to the collection of Kate and Allan Emil and has not been seen in public since 1975. It fetched a total of $24.6 million including buyer’s premium, setting a new auction record for Picasso in Asia.

Basquiat has been a hot name among Asian buyers in recent years and his Untitled (Red Warrior) from 1982 featured in the contemporary art evening sale fetched $20.9 million including buyer’s premium, the second most valuable work sold over the weekend. The work was offered just months after Warrior (1982) became the most valuable western artwork ever sold in Asia when it went under the hammer for almost $41.7 million at Christie’s Hong Kong in March and another work, the Untitled triptych, sold for nearly $37.3 million at the Jay Chou x Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale in June.

Van Gogh’s Nature Morte: Vase Aux Glaïeuls became the artist’s debut in Asia and went under hammer for $7.7 million to a phone bidder represented by the Hong Kong office. The painting from 1886 sold for $9.1 million including buyer’s premium.

The sales set more than a dozen new artists records and some of the western works went well above the pre-sale estimates: Jadé Fadojutimi’s Under the Weather sold for $799,600 against pre-sale estimate $167,127 to 244,263; Portrait of a Woman with Green Hair by Loie Hollowell fetched $1 million against the pre-sale estimate at $231,407 to $359,967; Joel Mesler’s Untitled (Hopes and Dreams) sold for $388,430, more than four times of the higher end of the pre-sale estimate.

<i>Nu endormi</i> by Sanyu. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Nu endormi (1950s) by Sanyu. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Names that have long been auction darlings in Asia, however, went unsold. Two works by 20th-century master Zao Wou-ki from his “Hurricane” period featured in the modern art evening sale did not find a buyer, with one of them last sold at a Sotheby’s sale in 2014. A painting by Sanyu was not sold either, and another work by the same artist Nu endormi from the 1950s sold for $10.3 million, below pre-sale estimates. An Auguste Rodin’s marble sculpture Napoléon Enveloppé Dans Ses Réves (1904–1909) that was featured in the sales preview exhibition earlier was withdrawn. The modern art evening sale had a sell-through rate of 86 percent compared to the 89 percent sell-through rate in the modern day sale.

Contemporary works by Chinese artists Zeng Fanzhi and Liu Wei were not sold. The sell-through rates of contemporary evening sale and day day were 89 percent and 92 percent respectively.

Hong Kong cinema auteur Wong Kar-wai’s NFT debut In The Mood For Love — Day One, containing previously unseen footage from the first day of filming the now classic drama feature, sold for $550,280, nearly doubling the pre-sale estimates. All 30 collectibles featured in the sale that mark the 30th anniversary of Wong’s production company Jet Tone Films achieved a white-glove sale, with film posters autographed by the Cannes best director being the most sought after items.


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