Christie’s Spring Marquee Sales Sets the Tone for the Asian Art Market and the Auction Season Ahead

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Warrior, 1982, acrylic, oil stick and spray paint on wood panel. 183 x 122 cm. Image courtesy of Christie’s.
BANKSY, Game Changer, 2020, oil on canvas, 91 x 91cm.. Image courtesy of Christie’s.
Pablo Picasso, Femme nue couchée au collier (Marie-Thérèse), 1932, oil on canvas,  40.6 x 40.6 cm. Image courtesy of Christie’s.
René Magritte, Le mois des vendanges, 1959, oil on canvas, 127.6 x 160 cm. Image courtesy of Christie’s.
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Christie’s spring marquee sales on 23 March ended with shattering records from contemporary artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and BANKSY, but the auction week exposes more than the record-setting alone. It affirms that Asia is a powerhouse here to stay, and the auction market is far from shrinking into complete dearth.

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of Christie’s

This week, Christie’s held their spring marquee auctions in London and Hong Kong, opening the season with Sotheby’s, Phillips and others to follow in coming weeks. It’s been a little bit different than previous years, with the hype in Hong Kong feeling a little more subdued since March has lost its prime title as the city’s art month. We might also blame the shifting momentum on how auctions appear less geographically defined as live streaming, online and phone buying all become prominent mainstays. The purpose of geographic separation now comes down to taxation laws and import and export regulations over buyer convenience. Now with the recent hype around NFTs (another trophy win for Christie’s), this separation is further blurred as laws are still yet to catch up. Watching from afar, there are two noticeable trends to take with us from the sales this week.

 

Asia, A True Powerhouse Here to Stay

In The Art Market 2021 which was released last week by Art Basel and UBS, report findings noted that in 2020, Greater China surpassed the US to hold the largest global share by value in the public auction market at 36% and 29% respectively. It also proved the rising wealth in Asia is only…further rising. Within Christie’s, the report observed a relatively equal global diversification of buyers for the auction house with Asia taking just a small lead at 34% by value, while the US came in at 33% with the remaining 33% going to Europe, the Middle East and Africa combined.

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Warrior, 1982, acrylic, oil stick and spray paint on wood panel. 183 x 122 cm. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

 

Greater China has by far and large always performed consistently well for middle- and lower priced works of art at auction, while the US often led the top end lots. This isn’t even a trend only limited to auctions but really so many sectors of the wider infrastructure of the art world. But in recent years Asia has been gaining a steadily growing foothold, and just last year, as the world was thrown into chaos with a global health crisis, auctions held in Greater China were outperforming its giant peers. Last October, Sotheby’s cracked a new record for a Western work of art sold in Asia with Gerhard Richter’s 1987 abstract painting Abstraktes Bild (649-2) purchased by The Pola Museum of Art, a private museum located in Hakone, Japan, for HK$214,631,000 (US$29,283,854). That record is now shattered by Christie’s landmark sale of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Warrior, painted in 1982 at the pinnacle of the late artist’s career. The painting, which admittedly was quite glorious to stand in front of during its preview in Hong Kong, was sold to an Asian collector over the phone for a stellar HK$323,600,000 (US$41,857,351) well exceeding the Richter sale by value.

Need I remind you of Goldfish, the Sanyu painting of eight goldfish swimming in a vertical jar painted in the 1930s to 1940s? Offered in a single-lot auction at Christie’s last December, the painting by the late Chinese-French painter, dubbed as the Matisse of Chinese artists, achieved HK$170,170,000 (US$22,056,326). This is exceeding all of the top lots of European Modern art that was sold this week at Christie’s in their 20th Century Art Evening and The Art of the Surreal Sales.

Such results indicates several points we should probably take notice of when thinking about Greater China’s lead in the public auction market. Not only is the wealth of the region certainly a key factor alongside rising knowledge, awareness and interest from collectors in Asia, but artworks by artists of Eastern or Asian ethnicity is really now able to compete side by side in the market next to previously dominant Western counterparts, at least in the Modern art category.

 

Christie’s is on a Winning Streak

Everyone likes to win. The desire for validation from an achievement recognised by others is ingrained in us from the time we take our first steps and speak our first words. Whether it’s in business or in our private life, this competitive spirit infiltrates just about everything to some degree. The stakes get higher as we get older and in the auction market, the stakes can be very high. Between the top rival auction houses it’s always a fierce battle to outdo each other, break the most records, sell at the highest prices, secure the most coveted artworks and collectibles; and from a mountain of headlines about its US$69 million NFT art sale earlier this month (I will spare you the pain of boring you with the name again), to a sale of a T-rex skeleton affectionately named Stan last October, Christie’s sure knows how to win these trophy firsts. They were also the first auction house last year, amid global lockdowns, to attempt a relay-auction across Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York, the format of which has since been dropped, and not picked up by other rivals—most probably because having four auctioneers simultaneously working their gavel is hardly an efficient idea.

 

BANKSY, Game Changer, 2020, oil on canvas, 91 x 91cm.. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

 

Enter the first marquee season of 2021 and Christie’s is out to achieve again. The 20th Century Art Evening Sales and The Art of The Surreal Sales across Hong Kong and London concluded on 23 March with a sell through rate of 93% by lot and 97% by value, bringing in a combined total of HK$1,655,333,300 (US$274,825,084). Aside from the milestone Basquiat sale—which was obviously the top lot of the evening—a new global auction record for the loved and hated BANKSY was also achieved with his oil painting of a young boy kneeling, holding a nurse doll while his superhero Batman and Spiderman dolls lay in a basket beside him. Titled, somewhat ironically, Game Changer, the artwork was the second highest lot of the night, selling for HK$179,176,536 (US$23,176,314), exceeding its high estimate more than four times over, and almost doubling the artist’s previous record of US$12.2 million set by Devolved Parliament in 2019.

Pablo Picasso, Femme nue couchée au collier (Marie-Thérèse), 1932, oil on canvas,  40.6 x 40.6 cm. Image courtesy of Christie’s.
René Magritte, Le mois des vendanges, 1959, oil on canvas, 127.6 x 160 cm. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

 

The next four top lots by value fell to European works of Modern Art as mentioned above, with Pablo Picasso’s sweet 40.6 x 40.6 cm 1932 painting of a nude woman Femme nue couchée au collier (Marie-Thérèse) achieving HK$155,916,090 (US$20,167,598) and Femme assise dans un fauteuil noir (Jacqueline), painted in 1962, selling for HK$103,274,028 (US$13,358,397); Joan Miró’s 1925 Peinture was the fourth-highest lot of the evening at HK$109,295,198 (US$14,150,165); and pioneering Surrealist René Magritte’s 1959 Le mois des vendanges followed closely on Miró’s coattails at HK$106,946,730 (US$13,833,458).

It was a treacherously long, seemingly endless sale that lasted some four hours, ending, for those of us in Hong Kong, late into the evening. But if Christie’s is setting the benchmark for the remainder of the global spring marquee season, needless to we can anticipate a few more exciting moments to come in the following weeks.

 

 

 
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