Focus in Hong Kong Shifts SouthEast … and North

Christie's HK Cont Asian Even 1114 (1)

On Saturday night, Christie’s held its Evening sale of 20th Century and Contemporary Asian art, what has become the central art event of their Hong Kong auction cycles (the jewelry sales generate more value and the works of art can be variable.) Quite recently, the classical Chinese painting had pride of place in the Hong Kong sales. But working formula is emerging that melds Chinese art with the most-sought works from Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Judging from the results, the top end of the Chinese art market remains strong but without suprises. Works by Zeng Fanzhi, Zao Wou-ki, Sanyu, Chu Teh-chun and Zhang Xiaogang continue to sell for strong prices but within or close to the estimate range. Gone are the days of huge run-ups as bidders crowd into a few works.

The Wall Street Journal points to the slowing Chinese economy as one explanation for the leveling off of the top of the Chinese market:

Big names from China, however, failed to meet expectations. Three paintings from Zhang Xiaogang, known for his bloodline series, had hammer prices below estimates. Similarly, bids for paintings by Zeng Fanzhi, known for his mask series, were at or below the low end of estimates. But demand for some top Chinese artists, including Zeng Fanzhi and Zhang Xiaogang, is cooling, as China’s anticorruption campaign weighs on demand for expensive items, taking some froth out of the art market, according to experts.

But Jing Daily observes that the primary group of buyers in the sale remains Chinese though Christie’s has done a good job of broadening their perspective. The popularity of mid-century abstraction has led the auction house to bring works from the Japanese Gutai school—growing in popularity in New York and London too—to Hong Kong:

Christie’s continued strong sales in Hong Kong are supported in large part by Chinese collectors, who are growing in ranks as China’s wealthy population expands and develops an increasingly avid interest in art investment. A total of nine out of the top 10 buyers at the sale were Asian, and prominent mainland buyers scooped up a diverse range of Asian works. For example, Wang Wei, the owner of Shanghai’s Long Museum and prominent collector of both Chinese and international art, purchased Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga’s Kaien for an above-estimate price of US$3,061,380.

The Wall Street Journal agrees:

As demand for Chinese art has softened, Christie’s has diversified its bets, focusing on pan-Asian and East-meets-West themes, such as on Saturday. “The pan-Asian theme has been a success and the Asian market is still strong,” said Christie’s Mr. Chang.

Bloomberg chimes in too. But they see a trend going farther afield:

“Chinese buyers are more low key these days, with China’s official austerity a factor,” said Jehan Chu, a Hong Kong-based art adviser who runs Vermillion Art Collections. “Christie’s is hoping to mint or mine the next ‘it’ contemporary auction artist for the East and Southeast Asian market.”

And Barron’s delves deeper into the sale with the surprising success of two Singaporean artists from the so-called Nanyang School:

“The active promotion of SEA art towards this end is really to break into the higher price bracket for SEA artworks,” says Bridget Tracy Tan, director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Arts & Art Galleries. “Selecting artists such as Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi is a deliberate choice since their lineage with the mainland is more explicit and can be traced in the actual aesthetic of the artworks.”

In an interview before the auction, [Christie’s] Wang [Zineng] anticipated the paintings would receive bids from buyers from as many as 10 different nations, largely across Asia. At a private sale of Chinese artists in Southeast Asia recently, he says French collectors were expressing interest in Cheong’s abstracts and English collectors were looking for his figurative works. Christie’s will not reveal who purchased the Nanyang school artist’s paintings, except to say it was an “Asian private buyer.” […]

Tan notes that wealthy collectors within Indonesia and within the Philippines have long invested in art from their respective countries. […] The prominence given to Southeast Asian works by big auction houses now may not necessarily reflect an appreciation for the region’s art as much as a desire to attract investors. “The search for high end buyers is not always the same as the ability to engage in genuine interest for the quality of artworks and their content,” Tan says.

Christie's HK Cont Asian Even 1114 (2)

Christie’s Hong Kong Evening Sale of Asian Art Draws $82 Million  (WSJ)

The Business of Luxury and Culture in China  (Jing Daily)

Christie’s Offers $400 Million of Art, Wine and Handbags  (Bloomberg)

Southeast Asian Art Unmasked by Collectors  (Barron’s)

Christie’s HK 20th C & Cont Asian Art Evening Sale = HK$635,495,000 (US$81m)

Swiss Assume Burden of Gurlitt Hoard

Christoph Schäublin
Christoph Schäublin

As expected, the Kunstmuseum Bern announced today that it would accept the responsibility of vetting the Gurlitt Hoard:

Christoph Schäublin, president of the board of trustees of the institution, the Kunstmuseum Bern, or Museum of Fine Arts Bern, said he did not expect a last-minute attempt by a cousin of Cornelius Gurlitt, who bequeathed the collection, to prevent the museum from accepting it.

Mr. Schäublin said the decision, reached on Saturday, was “anything but easy” because of the origin of the collection. But he said the museum would seek to set a new standard in handling Nazi-looted art, by having a privately funded team of experts comb the history of each piece before it came into the museum’s possession.

Mr. Schäublin said a complete list of the artworks collected by Mr. Gurlitt would be made public, possibly as soon as Tuesday. That is intended to make it easier for potential claimants of looted art to come forward. An agreement reached between the museum, the German government and the state of Bavaria pledged to handle the collection with a high level of transparency

Kunstmuseum Bern Obtains Trove From Gurlitt Collection  (

New York Contemporary Sales Charts, 2004-2014

NY Cont 2004-2014

The New York Contemporary art sales totaled $1,703,991,563 this season. It’s a very large number but only fully comes into focus once one sees it in relation to the previous years’s totals. Above is a chart of the New York Contemporary art sales from the Fall of 2004 until the week we just saw pass. You’ll notice that totals increased dramatically in 2012, finally surpassing the 2007 peak of the previous market. But even with the increase in the Fall of 2013 and the Spring of 2014, nothing could prepare us for the leap forward taken this season.

For convenience sake, we’ve broken the charts down into two eras and provided an average total volume for that period. For the four years from 2005-2009, the average sales volume was $523m. From 2010-2014, the average volume was nearly double at $1.003bn.

NY Cont 2004-2014 w avg

Matisse Odalisque to Lead Sotheby’s London Imp Mod Sale

Odalisque au fauteuil noir (9-12m GBP)

Sotheby’s continues to build aggressively on its strength in the Impressionist and Modern market announcing today Matisse’s Odalisque au fauteuil noir, estimated at between £9 and 12m, for its London sale of Impressionist and Modern art:

Helena Newman, Sotheby’s Co-Head, Impressionist & Modern Art Worldwide, said: “This exquisitely coloured painting is one of the finest of the artist’s celebrated ‘Odalisque’ paintings to come to the market.”

An exquisite portrait depicting Princess Nézy-Hamidé Chawkat, the great granddaughter of the last Sultan of Turkey, Odalisque au fauteuil noir (dated 1942 and estimated at £9-12m) is one of Henri Matisse’s finest paintings from his famed ‘Odalisque’ series, his depictions of the notorious concubine figure, with which he created one of the most recognisable emblems of eroticism in Modern art.

Princess Nézy, as she was known, was sent to live with her grandmother after the proclamation of the Turkish Republic and was spotted in the street by Matisse in 1940, who was drawn to her striking dark looks. Following a formal request, the Princess’s grandmother granted permission for the princess to sit for Matisse – accompanied by a chaperone – and over the course of almost two years she became his favourite model. Writing about Odalisque au fauteuil noir in a letter dated 17th January 1942, Matisse wrote, ‘I have also begun an important canvas of ma petite princesse de rêve’. It was only when the princess left Nice to be married in 1942 that Matisse sought a new muse.

Trophy Museums Are Not Just for Billionaires

Harvard Museum Renovations
Harvard Museum Renovations

The New York Times ran a thin, a poorly reported piece on the trend of big new museums underwritten by billionaires like Carlos Slim, Francois Pinault, Bernard Arnault and Elie Broad.

What does it take to become a world-class art collector? These days, you need to build not only a great collection, but a great museum to house it in. Over the past few years, a rash of art-loving billionaires have dedicated themselves, or their foundations, to the construction of spectacular new venues to show off their finest acquisitions.

Continue Reading

Inside Ruprecht’s Decision to Let Go

Bill Ruprecht

The New York Times has added to their story on Bill Ruprecht’s decision to move on from his role as CEO. Although they take a poke at Dan Loeb and suggest the hedge fund manager is too thin-skinned to have worked with Ruprecht over the long term, “Of the various counterpunches that Sotheby’s threw during the boardroom battle,” the Times says, “criticisms of Mr. Loeb’s art expertise proved some of the most irksome to the financier.”

Art expertise is hardly the point at this juncture in Sotheby’s history. The firm faces tremendous pressure from its position as an independent company and one that is public. It’s chief rival is a wholly owned subsidiary of a much larger luxury goods retailer and it seems to be evolving into an online luxury retailer under the big tent of its prowess in the Contemporary art market.

That Artemis, Christie’s owner, is a luxury goods conglomerate is far more important than the fact that it is a private company. Those who imagine taking Sotheby’s private would material improve the company’s value would have to ask themselves, how? A private independent Sotheby’s would need a great deal of capital investment to pursue a broader retailing strategy.

It’s hard to remember now, but the great imbalance between Sotheby’s and Christie’s in Contemporary art is only a very recent phenomenon. One could date it to 2011 or possibly back to the Yves Saint-Laurent/Pierre Bergé sale in the depths of the financial crisis. Whatever the sign post, the firms diverged in strategy some time ago. The irony is that Sotheby’s strategy was to focus on the higher value lots but they were outflanked by Christie’s aggressive focus amping up Contemporary art.

And, the Times makes a point of telling us that the decision has been long in the works, not that it was a reaction to last week’s sales much in the way that Tobias Meyer exited the company a year ago:Continue Reading

Wealth-X Puts Global UHNW (Assets of $30m or More) Population at 211,275, Up 6% from 2013

UHNW Luxury Spending

Wealth-X has released it’s 2014 report on the Ultra High Net Worth population. These 211,275 households with $30m in liquid assests or more are huge drivers of the global luxury business and cultural markets that are bound up in their emergence. As the chart above suggests, art is a central part of their identity. Owning globally recognized art, is a badge of membership in this rapidly growing global class and one reason the auction houses are seeing a strong influx of new buyers, often at the very top of the market.

Here’s Wealth-X on the luxury market in general:Continue Reading

Ruprecht to Leave Sotheby’s

Bill Ruprecht

The New York Times’s Dealbook is reporting that Sotheby’s CEO William Ruprecht has confirmed that he will relinquish his position:

Mr. Ruprecht, 58, who has led the company for the last 14 years, had been under fire during the battle with Mr. Loeb that lasted for months. Its board, which now includes Mr. Loeb, has been considering changes to the company’s leadership since August, people briefed on the matter said.

Here’s Sotheby’s release:

Ruprecht, who has served as CEO since 2000, will continue as Chairman, President and CEO until his successor is in place to ensure a smooth transition.

The Board has formed a Search Committee to oversee the recruiting of a new CEO and has retained Spencer Stuart, a leading executive search firm, to assist in the process.  The Committee is led by Domenico De Sole, Lead Independent Director.Continue Reading