The analysis of Phillips and Poly Auction's joint 2020 Modern and Contemporary sale on December 3 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.)
Phillips in Hong Kong achieved its highest total for a 20th century and Contemporary art sale today when, in association with Poly auctions, one of mainland China’s biggest auction rooms, it sold 29 lots for HKD 388 million ($50 million) after one lot was withdrawn and two were unsold. The sale had been estimated to fetch in the region of $40 million so could be deemed a great success. (Sale prices include the buyer’s premium, estimates do not).
Phillips is a relative newcomer in Hong Kong and began staging 20th century and Contemporary art sales in November 2016, so are still laying down roots. Like the Hong Kong leg of Christie’s sale yesterday, the early lots were peppered with works by western based artists, Phillips’ strongest suit, who have established a speculative momentum in Asia.
In only his second appearance at auction, New York-based painter Salman Toor was represented with a far more mature work– Group Dance (2012), an outdoor scene of dancing figures, host to sociopolitical tensions for which Toor’s works have gained acclaim. At least 9 bidders competed for the work until it sold to a client bidding through Phillips’ head of the Watch department in Asia, Thomas Perazzi, for ten times the estimate of HKD $4 million ($520,000)— a good plug for Phillips expertise in luxury items like watches and jewelery, which have been combining forces and exploring cross-collecting tendencies with contemporary art for quickly assembled sales throughout the pandemic.
One of the larger single paintings by another emerging artist, the late Matthew Wong, the vividly-colored River at Dusk (2018) attracted multiple bidders jumping in with unpredictable increments before selling to Phillips’ General Manager of Asia, Nick Wilson, for a triple estimate record HK$37.8 million ($4.9 million) just a shade above Wong’s previous record of $4.5 million set in October this year.
Other records were set for Bernard Frize ($276,318) and Lucas Arruda ($487,620). And during the early section of the sale multiple estimate prices were paid for works by Emily Mae Smith which saw bidding from Taiwan, Korea, California and Singapore before selling for HKD 1.1 million, and Titus Kaphar– a bidder from Taiwan fending off competition from California and Singapore at HKD 3.4 million ($438,650.)
Japanese art is always a strong suit in Hong Kong, and this sale was led by Yoshitomo Nara’s classic painting Hothouse Doll (1995), which had been sold at Christie’s New York in 2008 during a day sale in where it achieved $769,000, double the estimate and the fifth highest price for the artist at the time. Today, at least 7 bidders went for it before sit sold to the same phone buyer that won the Wong, for HKD 103 million ($13.3 million). The work made double the estimate, setting the second highest price for the artist and, satisfyingly for Phillips, far above the best Nara offered by Christie’s yesterday.
Predictably, polka dot star Yayoi Kusama was among the top sellers, though they didn’t take off. A relatively late 2007 example from her Infinity Nets series of paintings, which had been bought at Phillips in New York in 2016 for $2.1 million sold below the estimate to fetch HKD 17.2 million or $2.2 million, leaving precious little change for the seller.
Turning to more established Western contemporary artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1984 Ancient Scientist from a European collection was bought in New York in 2005 for $660,000 and proved a good investment as anticipated selling for HKD 58 million ($7.5 million). I’ll let you do the math on that. Gerhard Richter abstracts that were all the rage not so long ago seem to have cooled, but are still profitable. Phillips didn’t have far to go to find a small example from 1988 bought from their London saleroom 3 years ago for £2.2 million ($3.1 million), but it made only a small return after commission charges for the Distinguished European seller who sold it today for HKD 32.3 million ($4.2 million). Both Basquiat and Richter sold to the same phone bidder.
In the classic Asian modern art section some hopes were too high. A 1960 abstract by Chu Teh-Chun had been acquired in 2005, before his market really took off, for an above estimate HK$1.8 million. The buyer described by Phillips as “a Distinguished French Collector,” was hoping to reap a good reward today with a HKD 15 million-20 million estimate, but that was not to be as the painting went unsold. Another Chu seller, described as an “Important Asian collector,”, was less greedy. They bought a 1981 abstract by Chu for HKD 4.8 million in 2016 and, with an HKD 5 million low estimate, it sold today for HKD 7.7 million ($1 million).
A star from the first wave of post-1960s Chinese art stars, Yue Minjun, is no longer in the ascendant. A typically grinning, satirical self-portrait in a pink dress by the artist had sold for $769,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2008, but now brought only HKD 2 million ($258,000). A private Asian collector who bought an early Zao Wou-Ki whirling abstraction from 1964 for HK5.7 million in 2007, saw a reasonable return when it sold above estimate for HK$13.5 million – but a 2005 gunpowder painting by Cai Guo-Qian, which was bought from the Estella collection at Sotheby’s in 2007 for HKD 7.6 million ($980,512), sold within estimate— but for only HKD 4.4 million ($567,665).
This may have been a successful sale for Phillips, but not for all of the sellers.