This report on the Zao Wou-Ki market by Angelica Villa with data from Pi-eX 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.)
According to a new report, from London-based art market data analysis firm Pi-eX, that collates artists’ market data across Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips from 2007-2019, French-Chinese postwar painter Zao Wou-Ki’s market is expanding. Zao Wou-ki’s total auction turnover (which exceeded $300 million in 2018, according to Artprice’s annual market report) places him among the top selling artists in the entire art market. Zao Wou-ki’s growing international demand is also an indication of Asia’s swelling influence on the art market. The volume of lots sold across the market has increased by 183.1 percent from 189 lots in 2007 to 535 placed with buyers in 2019. But auction turnover that has grown by 529.3 percent since 2007 from an annual total of $37.8 million to $238 million grossed in 2019.
Top auction houses are the largest distributor of the artist’s works and have driven his market peaks. The Chinese master who spent the bulk of his career living in France entered the highest echelon of market during the 2018 Sotheby’s Hong Kong modern art evening sale with the record setting sale of his monumental abstract triptych, Juin-Octobre (1985) for $65.2 million. The work was deaccessioned from New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum where it resided for several decades after being gifted by the original owner in 1964. Bloomberg reported the seller bought the triptych for $2.3 million in 2005, coming in at a staggering 2734.7% appreciation in value. 2018 also saw Et la terre était sans forme (1956-7) sell for $23 million in March, followed shortly thereafter by the sale of 14.12.59 (1959) for $22.5 million that May. Public auction results also show that six of Zao Wou-Ki’s top ten highest results came during this year. In 2013, the year of the artist’s death, Zao had yearly sales of $139.5 million, seeing four auction highs between $7.9 million and $12.4 million.
Since 2014, the high-value works surfacing at the three auction houses has contracted, but the number of works hammering at a price of $10 million or more has increased steadily. The artist reportedly made approximately 1,800 paintings between 1935 and 2008 and the Zao Wou-ki Foundation, established in Switzerland after the artist’s death in 2013, has taken a role in organizing museum and dealer exhibitions in order to further expand Zao Wou-ki’s legacy and market value. A legal battle over the $656 million estate between the artist’s heirs was settled in 2017, which became a key turning point in the artist’s market. The settlement allowed, Zao’s third wife and the estate’s executor, Françoise Marquet-Zao, to play a role getting valuable works sold privately. In 2017, a critical posthumous moment for the artist’s marker was Lévy Gory’s New York exhibition “Willem de Kooning | Zao Wou-Ki” and another at Gagosian in Hong Kong, bringing an opportunity for prospective buyers to acquire valuable works from seminal periods through private sale. Each dealer reported working with the foundation in order to secure works for exhibition. A factor which could potentially impact the future of the Zao market is the ultimate representation of the estate by a blue-chip dealer with the capacity to expand the artist’s placement among global collections.
Despite growing international recognition of the artist’s importance, demand for Zao Wou-Ki’s work is concentrated largely in Asian private collections. Hong Kong sales accounted for around 90% of the artist’s total hammer price across Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips in 2019, with Paris as the next leading sale site. Some of Zao’s most expensive works have been traded by high profile Taiwanese buyers in particular. Forbes cites DeVictor Ma, Chairman of Taiwan’s Yuanta Financial Holdings, Pierre T. M. Chen of the Yageo Foundation and Richard Tsai of Fubon Financial among them. Other works reside in major international museum collections in the U.S. and Europe including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Centre Pompidou, and the Tate Modern.
Zao’s most valuable works hail from his seminal Hurricane Period from the 1960s to 1980s. The artist’s association with Western painters like Pierre Soulages and Franz Kline, his role as a leading modernist but his unassailable Chinese connection and the wall-power of his works are some of the key factors contributing to his appeal among the wealthy class in Asia.
The most recent high-caliber Zao Wou-Ki to come to auction, a monumental red abstract from 1963—the largest work in the series of red paintings from his Hurricane period—titled 21.10.63 was reserved for the Hong Kong leg of the Christie’s ONE auction staged on July 10. It was poised to be the leading lot of the first session. Tagged with a pre-sale estimate of $10 million, the work failed to find a buyer after reaching a bid of HKD 80 million. Despite the missed mark in the ONE auction, a host of other works by Zao performed above estimates leading up to the Christie’s sale. In Sotheby’s Hong Kong series, seven canvases by Zao Wou-ki placed with buyers, with 20.03.60 achieving the highest selling price of the season at $14.8 million.
According to the Pi-eX report, Zao’s market has shown a steady increase in total hammer price from 2007 and 2019. The first milestone for the artist’s market, in 2013, was when the total hammer for the artist reached nearly 100 million, landing above the high estimate. This was a significant rise above the 2012 total hammer, which came at around $30 million. 2013 brought Zao’s hammer prices to a new leveled between $60 to $100 million until 2017. 2018 saw the highest valued work by Zao surface on the secondary market—with an aggressive high estimate that paved the way for the leading hammer total realized in 2019. As Zao’s works on the resale market have increased in estimated value, the works have consistently landed within pre-sale estimates showing a solid overall performance and low market volatility.
In the graph featured above, the average hammer price of Zao’s works traded at top auction houses have seen an 800 percent increase in the past eight years— from $500,000 in 2007 to $4.5 million realized in 2019. Each of the graphs illustrating hammer price performance shows a steep incline from 2016 to 2019 for pre-sale value, with the average high estimate moved to a new price point of $5 million.