Hopes were high as the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Night Sale in Hong Kong approached on April 19. Asia last year proved to be a saving grace for the locked-down art industry, overtaking the United States as the world’s largest auction market. The latest Asian market test suggests demand remains broad and dynamic, but not frothy. The sale of 45 lots totaled HK $ 952 million ($ 122.5 million), a record for a contemporary art sale at Sotheby’s Asia, according to the house.
The lineup was teeming with international names, from sought-after young stars like Salman Toor, Matthew Wong and Avery Singer, to more established figures like Dana Schutz and Yoshitomo Nara, to top masters like Clyfford Still and Roy Lichtenstein. There were also a lot of big Chinese art stars such as Zeng Fanzhi and Zhang Xiaogang.
Led by Sotheby’s Hong Kong auctioneer and senior manager Ian McGinlay, the sale followed the same format as the house’s other major evening sales over the past year, with a live hybrid auction structure and virtual (including an audience of IRL bidders in Hong Kong). Additional offers were sent by telephone banking specialists in London and New York as well as online.
New records were set for Toor, which was recently the subject of a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum (three boys sold for HK $ 5.6million / $ 723,182, more than seven times its high estimate), and for Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai-Violet Hwami (Skye wenehanda recovered HK $ 3.8 million / $ 486,410). Asian collectors set 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 .
Much of the house’s success was orchestrated in advance, as 14 of the lots included financial guarantees from third parties.
Although Sotheby’s reported that the sale was carried out in white gloves, that is to say for each lot sold, it refused to mention that the 46th lot, a work by Handiwirman Saputra, had been withdrawn just before the end of the auction (probably because there was not enough interest, but saving the house an officially unsold lot). This setback aside, the sale went smoothly, except when one lot reopened after an offer from London hit the airwaves late. (Considering the elaborate technology involved in making these hybrid sales, it’s surprising there weren’t more issues.)
The best lot of the sale was the summary of Still PH-568 (1965), which carried a third-party guarantee and sold for HK $ 126 million ($ 16.2 million) on a single offer to a client over the phone with Fine Arts President Amy Cappellazzo in New York City. The second highest prize was HK $ 118 million ($ 15.2 million) for a summary by Gerhard Richter, Schwefel (Sulfur) (1985).
Another prominent lot was that of Roy Lichtenstein Thoughts on Thud! (1990), who sold a client an offer with Hong Kong Senior Manager Yuki Terase for a hammer price of HK $ 94 million ($ 12 million).
The star of tonight’s sale was Japanese sensation Yoshitomo Nara, whose market is skyrocketing after his major retrospective reopens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Of the three Naras offered, the most expensive was Frog Girl (1998), which sold for HK $ 96.3 million ($ 12 million), exceeding his estimate of HK $ 40-80 million.
The competition ended in a three-way bidding war between two Hong Kong specialists and a New York specialist over the phone with their respective clients. One of the Hong Kong specialists won it on a hammer bid for HK $ 82 million ($ 10.5 million).
In particular, the sale was characterized by a particular depth of auction for young artists whose work is particularly difficult to secure on the primary market. Start (2017), a painting by the 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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