Sotheby’s Hong Kong Autumn Auctions Witness Eager Buyers, But Has The Inflation Bubble Reached A Peak?

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (649-2), 1987, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Sanyu, Fleurs dan un pot bleu et blanc, c.1950s, oil on Masonite, 91 x 62 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Wu Guanzhong, Scenery of Northern China, 1973, oil on board, 71.7 x 160 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Zhang Xiaogang, The Dark Trilogy: Fear, Meditation, Sorrow, 1989-90, oil and mixed media on canvas, three panels, 179 x 342.3 cm overall. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Adrian Ghenie, Lidless Eye, 2016-18, oil on canvas, 180.3 x 150 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

Prime artworks and strong auction results from Sotheby’s Hong Kong Autumn Sales series are indicative of an art market seeking recovery from the pandemic, but its slimmer than usual offerings are a telling sign of a trend or two that should not be overlooked.

 

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

With livestreaming now an essential aspect for the big three auction houses wanting to keep up in the rat race, Hong Kong’s autumn auction season kicked off to a high start this week with Sotheby’s debut multi-camera livestream auction in Asia. Just months ago, through June and July, there was heightened excitement as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips each emerged from COVID-19 hibernation with new sale formats—from combined mega-sales, and first trials of livestreaming, to driving hybrid online-offline tactic in efforts to respond to the shifting nature of an art world unable to host marquee events in packed salesrooms. Collectively they transacted more than US$825 million in art—indicating some positive signs of market resilience in these turbulent times. It wasn’t all smooth sailing however, with technical glitches and auctioneer egos leading to bidding confusion (most notably, Christie’s relay-style global sale on 10 July). Nonetheless, it’s a trend that is here to stay and the players are investing into improved saleroom setups—more cameras, more tech support, streamlining back to a single gavel and, predictably, more entertainment value. If there was to be one takeaway I could draw from Sotheby’s Hong Kong sales this week, it would be the feeling that the modern and contemporary art bubble is still inflating at a concerning level, despite the disruptions of a global pandemic, and with auction houses getting tech-savvy, there seems to be no slowing down. It’s not a matter of if, but when, this bubble will burst.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (649-2), 1987, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

 

The Secondary Market Rise and Fall

Sotheby’s Modern Art sales brought in a combined total of HK$819,515,720 (US$105,795,934) across 132 lots—only 26 of which made up the Evening Sale, which traditionally is viewed as where the prime lots are held. To no surprise, top lots fell to Sanyu and Wu Guanzhong. Scenery of Northern China, Wu’s stunningly romantic 1973 oil painting, the predecessor to his renowned six-metre mural created in 1979, hammered at HK$151,436,000 (US$20,684,059). Meanwhile Sanyu’s Nu, executed in the 1950-60s, sold for HK$168,671,000 (US$23,039,903). But it was the artist’s spectacular still life from the 1950s that stole the heart of eager bidders. After a 15-minute bidding battle, Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc well exceeded its HK$70,000,000 high estimate, selling for HK$187,055,000 (US$25,552,804)—and taking trophy as top lot of the evening.

The art market is indeed a fickle place led by trends that rise and fall. It was only two to three years ago that Richard Lin was the name on the lips of everyone looking for that next hot buy. Lin’s works were scarce on the auction block, hard to find except through private deals. Then the dam broke and as demand rose, so did the number of works coming to auction. The late Taiwanese Minimalist made headlines in 2019 when his 1964 painting 1.3.1964 – Painting Relief, which was famously exhibited in documenta III, sold for HK$6,175,625 (US$796,810). Yet, results from two lots offered in Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening Sale this year would indicate the demand is far from evergreen. Lin’s 1958 oil on canvas, titled JUNE JULY 1958, which had the artist’s trademark beautiful deep colour washes but bore a less ideal physical condition—upon close inspection one could spot undulations in the canvas and hairline craquelure—sold for HK$1,260,000, well under its low estimate of HK$2,500,000. Furthermore, the mixed media work MARCH 1962, consigned from a private European collection, failed to secure a new home.

By and large, both Evening and Day sales relied on its handful of star highlights and were substantially downsized from the same sale this time last year. The Modern Art Evening Sale went from 33 lots on offer in 2019 scaled down to 26, while the Day Sale shed 72 lots from a whopping 174 works for bidding to 102. Volatility in the market caused by COVID-19 undoubtedly had a role to play, but perhaps there are other underlying indications worth analysing that point to more substantial, as yet unknown, concerns regarding the art market in Asia. Or perhaps with the fuss over global live-streaming, marquee auctions will be a hype of the past?

 

Sanyu, Fleurs dan un pot bleu et blanc, c.1950s, oil on Masonite, 91 x 62 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Wu Guanzhong, Scenery of Northern China, 1973, oil on board, 71.7 x 160 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

 

Value Boom or Bubble?

The Contemporary Art sales collectively came in at HK$777,691,880 (US$100,338,000) with lead highlights in the Evening Sale including Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (649-2)—a prime example of the artist’s utilisation of the squeegee as a painting tool in the late ‘80s. The painting was snapped up by the Pola Museum of Art, a private institution in Hakone, Japan, for HK$214,631,000 (US$29,283,854) after a frenetic 10-minute  bidding war, making it the highest price achieved by a Western work of art sold at auction in Asia, according to Sotheby’s.

The Evening Sale achieved a 92% sell-through rate across 37 lots, and 89% from 136 lots in the Day Sale, both of which included highly anticipated consignments from Hanart TZ Gallery founder, collector and Chinese art connoisseur, Johnson Chang’s private collection, including a rare Zhang Xiaogang 1989-90 triptych which sold for HK$54,920,000 (US$7,481,528). There was also a mixed bag of pieces from the personal collection of Natalie and Lawrence Chu, with partial proceeds going towards the Chu Foundation’s latest project, the Chu Residency at Tateyama, in an effort to foster artistic and cultural exchange.

 

Zhang Xiaogang, The Dark Trilogy: Fear, Meditation, Sorrow, 1989-90, oil and mixed media on canvas, three panels, 179 x 342.3 cm overall. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Adrian Ghenie, Lidless Eye, 2016-18, oil on canvas, 180.3 x 150 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

 

Arguably, Hong Kong’s autumn sales began with a strong start. However, it is not without notable concerns worth bearing in mind as the season unfolds. A trend that has been visibly on the rise pre-pandemic but seems to have become even more apparent is the number of ultra-contemporary artworks hitting the block. Works produced within the last 10 years—often hovering around five—is being flipped at quick-fire prices. One such lot exemplary of this trend is Adrian Ghenie’s Lidless Eye, painted only in 2016-18 and acquired privately from the artist, which now traded hands for HK$54,920,000 (US$7,481,528). The sale marks the artist’s second highest auction record, but the staggering rate at which his market is being driven up makes us wonder when this contemporary art bubble will burst. Ghenie is just one of a few artists on offer this time that ticks this box. Others include Mary Weatherford, Sean Scully, Harold Ancart, Eddie Martinez, Banksy, Danh Vo, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Firenze Lai and latest breakthrough Chinese artist Huang Yuxing. Even if we discount those lots which belong to the Chu collection, a sale with not-for-profit intentions, and take into account the fact that not every work makes a new record, just the sight of artworks we still remember from their commercial gallery shows on the secondary market should be worrying. How much more inflation can contemporary art take?

 

 
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