Auction houses generally err on the side of aggressive pricing with their pre-sale estimates. It is a rare day that we find a work seriously under-valued when compared with the track records of similar works by an artist. But such appears to be the case with a work by Zhang Xiaogang, The Big Family No. 6 (1997), which will be auctioned at this Saturday’s sale of Asian Contemporary Art and Chinese 20th Century Art at Christie’s Hong Kong.
Estimated at $310,738–414,318, The Big Family No. 6 would be the least expensive work from its peer group to sell at auction. A Big Family from 1995 sold at auction for $76,622 in 2003, although it was resold in October 2006 for $1,452,075.
Even if The Big Family No. 6 sells for double the pre-auction estimate, this particular Xiaogang work will still rank on the low side for its peer group where works have routinely sold for more than $1 million. Xiaogang’s high estimates have twice been doubled, including for both sales of big family series (1995). Xiaogang’s highest priced work to ever sell at auction, Bloodline: The Big Family no. 3 (1995), nearly doubled its high estimate when it sold for $6,083,363 in April 2008 against a pre-auction high estimate of $3,469,768.
How we should read Christie’s estimate for The Big Family No. 6 is thus an interesting question.
On the one hand, the market for Chinese contemporary art has begun a serious recovery following a sharp correction late 2008–2009. At the Asian sales in early March at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, for example, Yue Minjun’s On the Lake (1994) sold for $1,888,208, which was 40% above its high estimate. The BRIC auction at Phillips de Pury London in late April saw Zhang Xiaogang’s Amnesia and Memory (2006) sell for $591,705, 20% above its pre-auction high estimate of $491,488.
On the other hand, the modest estimate range could indicate an issue with the painting itself, like condition, although Christie’s condition report maintains that apart from a slightly loose canvas and minor black dirt marks, “there are no apparent condition problems.” Provenance, another valuation driver, also appears not to be an issue given the work’s single transfer in 1998 when the present owner purchased it on the primary market from Hanart T Z Gallery. The price range suggested by Christie’s indicates a potential bargain.