The analysis of the Fall 2020 Hong Kong auctions at Christie's, Sotheby's and Phillips 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.)
In the Fall of 2020—following changes to the auction calendar, an expansion of online sales and several strategic partnerships between market players—the art market seemed to be losing its pandemic momentum. The strong demand seen in March, at the beginning of lockdowns across the Europe and U.S., turned towards a more selective market, with collectors still driven by opportunism amid the economic lag.
By December, the auctions in both Hong Kong and in New York, had revealed strong demand from Asian buyers that would ultimately power the late-season sales held to make up some market volume lost during the lockdown. Although the demand from Asia was also visible in the New York results through either bidding from Hong Kong in the relay sales or simply direct bidding from Asia in the New York livestream sales, the Hong Kong results provided the starkest evidence that a market slump was being avoided because of robust Asian buying.
Phillips doubled down on the region, following its strongest Asia-based sale of 20th-century and contemporary art and design in July, by teaming up with China’s largest state-owned auction house, Poly Auction. The joint evening sale was a watershed event for the smallest of the three global auction houses. The sale made a total of HKD 400 million ($50 million) and brought in a host of records for emerging artists like Salman Toor and the late Matthew Wong.
At Christie’s, the December evening sale and a single-lot auction devoted to a Sanyu painting depicting goldfish, generated a collective HKD 1.02 billion ($132 million) across 53 lots. That is in addition to the $119.3 million realized in the New York-Hong Kong relay sale that followed the same day. Weeks prior, Sotheby’s brought in $184 million across its Hong Kong modern and contemporary art evening auctions—up 26 percent from the 2019 equivalent sales.
Fall 2020 Hong Kong Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale Figures
The leading lots were by French-Chinese modernists who have long dominated the Asia-based auctions. But these works were flanked by Gerhard Richter, Chu Teh-Chun, Yoshitomo Nara and Wu Guanzhong. Across 162 sold lots, this season’s collective total for the Hong Kong and evening modern and contemporary evening art sales was HKD 3.2 billion ($417 million), 30.6 percent more than the HKD 2.2 billion ($289 million) achieved in the summer Hong Kong auctions. The sell-through rate was an astounding 95%, on par with the summer sale season and about 10 percent above the New York comparative figure. A sell-through rate in the 90th percentile is usually a sign of a sale heavily managed with guarantees or an exceptionally strong market.
The hammer total of HKD 2.4 billion ($31.6 million), calculates to a 1.44 hammer ratio. Hammer ratio is the hammer price divided by the aggregate low estimate HKD 1.7 billion ($219 million). That figure is a rough measure of overall market demand because it incorporates both hammer prices and lots bought in. Typically, hammer ratios above 1.10 indicate relatively strong demand; below 1.00 signals a weaker market. The Hong Kong fall season hammer ratio shows the same depth of bidding seen in the summer sales, which realized a near equal hammer ratio of 1.43. The figure suggests that demand among top buyers has remained strong between seasons.
Fall 2020 Hong Kong Modern and Contemporary Art Day Sale Figures
The Hong Kong modern and contemporary day sales brought HKD 593 million ($76.5 million) across 606 lots sold, with a sell-through rate of 91%. The day sales realized a hammer total of HKD 475.5 million ($61.3 million), against a pre-sale low estimate of HKD 282 million ($36.4 million). That’s a hammer ratio of 1.69, on par with the 1.67 in the summer global day sales—signaling continuing exceptional strength in the day sale market. Another measure of the health of the Hong Kong day sale market is the low percentage out of the works offered that went unsold (8.7 percent).
Fall 2020 Hong Kong Modern and Contemporary Art Market Share
Several of the highest hammer prices came for Chinese-French painter Sanyu. A cornerstone of the Asian art market, Sanyu has taken the lead this season over Zao with the highest turnover in the fall Hong Kong auctions. Following the same trajectory as other Sino-French abstract artists Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun, Sanyu achieved a high market share of 18 percent, bringing in HKD 696 million ($90 million) across 19 works sold. Occupying 9.5% of the market share this season, a significant drop from the 23 percent share realized in the summer, a total of 23 Zao paintings were sold across the evening and day sales generating a collective HKD 362 million ($46.8 million).
Unlike the New York auction market share, where a significant portion of the top ranking artists’ sale volume can be attributed to a single high-value lot, Sanyu and Zao Wou Ki saw several works traded throughout the season. Next to Zao in the market share lineup is modernist Wu Ghuanzong, whose landscape scenes have brought new auction benchmarks for the artist in recent months. Seven works total by Wu Ghuanzong generated a total of HKD 268 million ($34.5 million) German postwar artist Gerhard Richter ranked in fourth place by market share, with two works bringing in a total of HKD 245 million ($31.6 million). Revlon magnate Ron Perelman’s 1987 Richter abstraction, which sold at Sotheby’s in October for $28 million was the most expensive lot by a Western artist sold at an auction house in Asia. Among the top 15 were other Western contemporary artists like George Condo, Jean-Michel Basquiat and market phenom Matthew Wong, who achieved a combined turnover of more than $16 million across the New York and Hong Kong auctions this season.
Fall 2020 Hong Kong Modern and Contemporary Art Top Evening Sale Lots
At Christie’s, the single-lot sale of Sanyu’s goldfish still life, painted during the 1930s-1940s and formerly in the collection of Taiwanese billionaire Pierre Chen, saw the rare work hammer at HKD 188 million ($22 million), accounting for 21 percent of the artist’s auction turnover this season. The result aligns with the modern master Sanyu’s market ascendance over the past decade. Sanyu’s reign in Hong Kong continued with the sale of his black-ground floral still-life, which hammered at HKD 118 million ($15.2 million and $17.8 million with buyer’s fees) surpassing its low estimate of HKD 68 million ($8.8 million) by 74 percent. Purchased 15 years ago by the seller at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2005 for just HKD 3.3 million ($420,129)— the October sale saw the painting’s market value appreciate by more than 4,000 percent.
Yoshitomo Nara’s Hot House Doll, featured on the cover of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, was the only one of the artist’s works to out-perform estimates. This is an indication of how thoroughly developed Nara’s market is with sellers demanding the fullest prices for their works to be reflected in reserve prices and estimates.
Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline Series, No. 2, once owned by director Oliver Stone, more than doubled its low estimate for a total of HKD 98 million ($12.6 million). Dana Schutz’s 2017 painting of contorted figures Elevator, which was featured in the Whitney Biennial the same year was among the top single-lot sales by a Western artist; the work doubled its high estimate going for $6.4 million. Christie’s made a pitch to the consignor based upon their feeling for the Asian market. Although there was strong bidding from New York to drive the record price, the strategy paid off when the work was purchased by an Asia-based buyer.
As for the overall performance of the top Hong Kong lots, more than half of the top 20 works sold for above their estimates, with only one lot, Andy Warhol’s Dollar Sign failing to meet its pre-sale expectation.
Fall 2020 Hong Kong Modern and Contemporary Art Top Day Sale Lots
A single work by Zao Wou-Ki in the top 20 day sales lots hammered below its low estimate. Like the top evening sale lots, more than half of the works sold for hammer prices above the high estimate—another indication of the market’s strength in the region. Representing a range of styles spanning Western and Eastern art movements from various periods, artists such as Yoshitomo Nara and Liu Ye, each known respectively for their repeated visual tropes and universal appeal in the global art market, have historically topped the Hong Kong contemporary day auctions. Compared to the summer auction sales, this season’s results show a smaller portion of emerging Western artists dominating the day sales, as the modern market remains supreme, with works by modernists like Lin Fegman, Chu Teh-Chun, Vu Cao Dam, Leonard Foujita and Marc Chagall among the top 20 highest single-lot sale. Emerging artists like Amoako Boafo, Matthew Wong and Salman Toor, each of whom have captured the market’s attention in the past year with staggering auction records, remained among the ultra-contemporary favorites in the Hong Kong market.
Fall 2020 Hong Kong Modern and Contemporary Art Most Dynamic Lots
* This analysis uses data from 11 modern and contemporary art Hong Kong day and evening sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips from October 5th-December 4th, 2020 and includes items of fine art and design.