This analysis of six years of Spring Sales in Hong Kong of Modern and Contemporary Art Evening sales was made possible with data from our friends at Pi-eX. It is available to AMMpro subscribers. Subscriptions begin with a free month for the curious.
Sotheby’s had another strong sale in Hong Kong today. With reports that the Chinese market was in decline coming out shortly before this sales cycle, few were expecting the Hong Kong sales to be robust. Then, over the first two days of the cycle, auction totals and sell-through rates were very, very strong. Asian Modern and Contemporary seems to have made a shift from previous performance to much greater value.
In the Modern category, Zao Wou-ki is emerging as the market-driving force with the ability to generate high prices for individual works and have enough material to create market volume. In 2018, Zao sold $326m worth of art at auction and reached a peak price of $65m. At Sotheby’s this week, the Modern evening sale reached $101m with $55m coming from Zao’s work.
Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening sale was more restrained with $56m in sales but records were set for Asian artists like Yayoi Kusama and non-Asian artists like Julie Mehretu. It is far too early to drawn conclusions or trends from this one sales cycle—and the totals are still relatively low compared to New York’s sales cycles—but Asian market is beginning to approach new levels.
The charts Pi-eX has prepared for us here compare similar sales from previous sale cycles at Sotheby’s and from the comparable sales at Sotheby’s and Phillips over the same period. These charts only cover the Evening Modern and Contemporary sales. They do not include valuable sales in other categories or single-owner sales. What we’re charting here is the growth of the Modern and Contemporary art market in Hong Kong.
This first chart shows the growth in value of the Modern and Contemporary Evening sales in Hong Kong over the past seven years. You can see the relatively consistent results from 2014-2017. In the past two years, there has been a big leap up in total sales value for the Evening sales. From the chart, below, of aggregate estimates and hammer prices, we can also see the big change was not only in the overall value of the sales but in the ability of the works to perform against estimates. In 2018 and 2019 the aggregate hammer price was near the top of the estimate range because of individual lot performance and higher sell-through rates.
On an average lot basis, the change is just as dramatic. In 2018, the average lot performance reaches the top of the range and supersedes the performance of 2014, the previous peak. In 2019, the sales out-performed estimates for the first time.
Switching our frame of reference from Sotheby’s sales performance to the broader Hong Kong market (and here we are only using data from the three Western auction houses, not from any of the Asian auction houses which are doing substantial sales themselves.) The next two charts show the mix of value by lot at the three houses and by value. In other words, the top chart shows you the increasing number of low value lots and very high value lots over the last two and four years.
What this suggests is that the auction market in Hong Kong has been expanding to include a broader range of lots by value even if the increase is sales value is coming from the higher value lots. That should be the sign of a maturing market. Auctions need a mix of different artists and lots to introduce buyers to new artists or demonstrate the increase in value of a particular artist or market.
We can also see that increasing value of these sales has come from growth at the individual houses and the steady addition of houses to the market.
Now let’s look at the average and the aggregate lot performance for all three houses over the last decade. Here we can see the same pattern that we saw at Sotheby’s but slightly muted by the addition of the other two auction houses. If sales at Christie’s and Phillips are equally as strong as we’ve seen this week at Sotheby’s, the chart will continue to rise up and to the right.