From London to Hong Kong, certain art works are selling at far above previous prices.
This commentary by Marion Maneker is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
The London auctions coinciding with the Frieze Art Fair seemed to telegraph a market focusing more on quality over quantity: sales volume was down along with third-party guarantees but competition (and prices) for specific works of art was strong. At all three houses, headline sales totals were way down even as good feelings pervaded the after-sale conversations.
Then there was the surprise, out-of-register £9.9m sale at Sotheby’s of Banksy’s Devolved Parliament which seemed to be priced based upon the short-term political climate (or perhaps upon the hope that the painting would come to be seen as a cultural touchstone in the aftermath of a deeply contentious Brexit.) Whatever the motivation behind the scrum bidders who pursued the work, it is rare to see a single work by an artist suddenly sell for a huge multiple of the artist’s previous record price. In Banksy’s case, the sale was five times the pre-sale high estimate for the work and the previous record set for the artist which was set during the pre-financial crisis euphoria of an earlier and substantially different art market.
Just a few days later and on the opposite side of the world, Sotheby’s was holding its Fall cycle of sales in Hong Kong with the added complication of the city-state’s continuing pro-democracy protests. In an environment what would normally be considered less than conducive for a luxury art auction, Sotheby’s was able to do good business.
On Saturday night, Sotheby’s held their marquee event styled as a Modern art Evening sale dominated by works by Sanyu, Zao Wou-ki, Wu Guanzhong and a smattering of Western stalwarts like Marc Chagall, Bernard Buffet and even Wassily Kandinsky. The result was 610m HKD or nearly $78m in sales led by a Sanyu nude that made more than $25m or a third of the sale’s total.
Sanyu’s previous record price was $16m set in eight years ago in Hong Kong too. So that strong price was impressive but not far-fetched. The night’s second most valuable lot was a Zao Wou-ki painting that sold at the top end of the estimate range to make $13.3m. Sanyu held the third and fourth spots with two works that also sold at the top of the estimate range to make $6.3m and $5.5m respectively. Two works by Wu Guanzhong exceeded expectations by a substantial margin. One sold for twice the high estimate and and the other for 50% above the high estimate.
The point here is that Saturday night’s top lots were selling into strength, perhaps greater relative strength in Hong Kong’s market than London’s market, but not with the kind of spiky surprise seen with the Banksy sale.
The top lots in Sotheby’s Modern Art day sale in Hong Kong ($10.7m) showed even greater strength with a run on works by Lin Fengmian with the top four works in the sale making final prices that were triple and double the high estimates. These were mid-to-high six-figure sales in dollar terms but still strong results.
The Contemporary Art Evening sale opened with a single-owner sale from the Barron and Barroness Gillion Crowet that achieved 138,817,000 HKD ($17.7m). The top lot was Liu Ye’s Smoke which made a 52m HKD ($6.6m) over a 35m HKD high estimate. Zhang Xioagang’s Big Family No. 16 from the Bloodlines Series. Another work by Zhang Father and Daughter No. 1 made more than double the high estimate to come in atv5.75m HKD. Yue Minjun’s Contemporary Terracotta Warriors 2 (Nine Works) also out-performed estimates to make 2.65m HKD over a 1m HKD high estimate.
The blow-out performances were just beginning. The Contemporary Art Evening sale opened with a Nicolas Party painting which sold for nearly twice the high estimate. Liu Ye hit the same multiples. Tomoo Gokita saw a 50% rise over the high estimate then Yoshitomo Nara’s Looking at You had a 22m HKD high estimate but sold for 37.5m HKD or $4.7m.
Eddie Martinez’s Rumble sold for six times the high estimate to make $664k. A Yayoi Kusama Pumpkin sold for $3.5m; and a Liu Wei Watermelon hit almost $1m.
Those were just appetizers for Nara’s Knife Behind Back, a massive painting from 2000 that was guaranteed and supported by an irrevocable bid, which made a stunning $24.9m or more than five times the painter’s previous record. The sale was a bookend to the Banksy sold 6000 miles away. Kazuo Shiraga, Sean Scully and Georg Baselitz were among the globally diverse painters in the sale whose works also outran the estimates; Andy Warhol, John Currin and Elisabeth Peyton, too.
In all the excitement, KAWS and his Kimpsons work, guaranteed for $6m, only made $7.3m in the end barely causing a ripple of attention just seven months after the artist’s own jolting jump in value in Hong Kong.
It has taken more than a decade for the Contemporary art Evening sales in Hong Kong to develop to the point where the mix of artists is almost indistinguishable from an evening sale in New York or London. Indeed, the sales in London and Hong Kong, held within days of each other, seem to be part of a single global contemporary art market with balanced bidding from Europe, the US and Asia. There is increasing evidence that the consignments across regions are becoming as balanced as the bidding. Almost imperceptibly, the truly global art market seems to have crept up on us.