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.
The Business of Luxury and Culture in China (Jing Daily)
Southeast Asian Art Unmasked by Collectors (Barron’s)