Following the announcement that two Zao Wou-Ki paintings will lead its marquee Hong Kong auctions, Phillips has unveiled more of the top lots for its contemporary evening sale scheduled to take place on July 8 at the Hong Kong JW Marriot.
Among those lots are key works by mainstays in the Asian market, including Chinese artist Liu Ye’s large-scale Choir of Angels (Red), from 1999. The work features cherubic figures standing in stark order against a red curtain. Created as part of Liu’s seminal red curtain series, the work is inspired by the artist’s coming of age during China’s Cultural Revolution, as well as René Magritte’s Surrealist art. It has never before been showcased publicly. Just 16 other works of its kind exist.
“The red curtain is one of the most emblematic and early motifs in the artist’s work: the stage prop locates the action in a fictional world; it can reveal or conceal what is happening behind and is also an allusion to Chinese culture and the red flag,” Isaure de Viel Castel, head of 20th century and contemporary art at Phillips in Hong Kong, said in an interview.
The work is expected to go for between $2.6 million and $5.2 million (HK$20 million–HK$40 million). The highest price ever paid for a Liu work was for his painting Smoke ((2001–02), which was bought for $6.7 million (HK$52.2 million) in Sotheby’s Hong Kong contemporary sale in October 2019.
“The presentation of Liu Ye works in 2018 in Shanghai was an eye-opening moment for many collectors, especially those from a younger generation,” de Viel Castel said, referring to an exhibition staged at the Prada Rong Zhai art space in Shanghai that later traveled to Milan. “Since then, the market has peaked up and the mega-gallery David Zwirner announced the representation of the artist in 2019, which further boosted the interest.”
Also headed to auction is Yoshitomo Nara’s 1999 canvas Wisdom Tooth Forever, which depicts an up-close portrait of the artist’s signature angst-ridden child character. The painting carries an estimate of $1.3 million–$1.9 million (HK$10 million–HK$15 million). Nara reached a new record high in 2018, with Knife Behind Back going for $24.9 million in a Sotheby’s contemporary Hong Kong evening sale in October 2019, besting its presale estimate of HK$50 million ($6.4 million).
There’s also Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline Series: Big Family No.3 (2005), which is expected to sell for $1.3 million–$1.9 million (HK$10 million–HK$15 million). Known for his figurative surrealist-influenced renderings based on mid-century Chinese photography, Zhang’s current auction record stands at $12.1 million, set in a Sotheby’s Hong Kong evening sale in April 2014, surpassing its high estimate of $10.3 million.
The Liu choir piece, as well as Yue Minjun’s Chimney, Zhang Xiaogang’s Big Family and Duplicated Space, and Zeng Fanzhi’s untitled work, all hail from the same Western private collection. Describing the reason for the seller’s drive to consign the major portion of his holdings, de Viel Castel said, “He feels that now is the time for him to move on and for these works to be placed in Asian collections” and that “there are not enough quality works available, while the museums and the collectors base are growing in Asia and especially in China.”
Each of the works touch on “very universal themes at the same time: childhood, coming of age, family relationships, your social standing, de Viel Castel said, noting the artists’ heightening global appeal. “These themes strike a chord with all collectors regardless of their origin” continued de Viel Castel, adding “this is why these artists have been collected as much by Americans and Europeans as well as collectors from the Greater Asian region and South East Asia.”
Auction house leaders have begun experimenting with curated sales, and Jonathan Crockett, Phillips chairman of Asia, said a portion of the forthcoming Hong Kong auction will bear the title “Playtime.” Featuring work by Liu, Barbara Kruger, and Tomoo Gokita, it will “explore the interconnections between art and sex, play, love, and eroticism.”
The upcoming Hong Kong sales will be a test of the market still reeling from the global pandemic shutdown. With Hong Kong and major cities across the region having recovered faster than Europe and the United States, where the virus’s impact was felt months later, the auction’s results could potentially offer insights into the state of the market at large. Top auction houses such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips have reported high numbers for online sales and competitive bidding, as heads of sales insist upon the market’s resilience. “The overall health and stability of the industry is robust,” said de Viel Castel, who confirmed there is a sustained demand for high-value works.