At the end of 2020, Hong Kong emerged as the leading force in the art market. Last fall, the results of the Hong Kong-based auctions staged at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips proved to be the strongest across global sale centers, capping one of the most challenging years the market has ever seen.
By early December, the auctions in both Hong Kong and in New York, had revealed strong demand from Asian buyers that would later drive the late-season sales, staged to make back a portion of the sales volume lost during the pandemic’s global lockdown. The Hong Kong results showed the strongest proof that a market lag was being avoided because of robust Asian buying.
Speaking at Art Media’s New York headquarters for Art Market Monitor and ARTnews Live’s Auction Reaction series, which follows the trends across the top international auction sales, Koji Inoue, International Senior Director of Postwar and Contemporary Art at Hauser & Wirth and Kim Heirston, a New York-based art advisor, surveyed some of the season end’s key lots.
The top lot of the December sales was David Hockney’s Nichols Canyon Road, which sold for a $41 million at Phillips New York, putting the boutique house in the lead for a single-lot sale against its larger competitors Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Several factors drove the result for the museum-quality Hockney. Inoue described Hockney as a ‘long overdue master,” one, who the specialist adds, in addition to both his roots spanning England to California, has had a long history of auction bidding from Asia.”Its kind of the perfect artist for auction right now.”
Phillips bolstered its presence in Asia as well this season, partnering with China’s largest state-owned auction house, Poly Auction for a watershed joint evening sale that generated HKD 400 million ($50 million) and brought in records for emerging artists like Salman Toor and the late Matthew Wong.
At the top of the market, Franco-Chinese masters have dominated the Hong Kong sales. At Christie’s, the December evening sale and a single-lot devoted to a Sanyu painting depicting swimming goldfish, generated a collective HKD 1.02 billion ($132 million) across 53 lots. The result is in addition to the $119.3 million realized in the New York-Hong Kong relay sale held on 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.
Christie’s sold Sanyu’s pink and black floral still life for for HKD 118 million ($15.2 million), against an estimate of HKD 50 million ($6.5 millino) The artist, known for drawing influence from European artists such as Matisse, his use of symbols like the chrysanthemum and goldfish, which appear in some of his top selling still-life works, reflect “a long history of iconography in Chinese culture,” said Inoue. Straddling both European and Asian art influences, the ongoing ascent of Sanyu’s auction results suggest the artist may eventually find an equal share among buyers globally.
Now, as the art market enters into a new era of global sale cycles, the auctions are also seeing more balance across the regional centers between both Western and Asian artists. “I think this pandemic in particular has accelerated a lot of that cross-pollination,” said Inoue.
In New York, the evening sales held by the top auction houses grossed $657 million across 148 sold lots with works by Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly and David Hockney among the most expensive to be sold. Among the artists who works provoked strong bidding was Alexander Calder. Sotheby’s sold Calder’s 1951 monumental mobile sculpture Mariposa from the Neiman Marcus collection, where it resided for seven decades for $18.1 million, triple the estimate of $6 million. In its vertical format for serious collectors of Calder, said Inoue, “it’s quite rare to come across one that has such grace.”
At Phillips evening sale in New York, an early Joan Mitchell work from the 1950s with a primarily grey palette made during the artist’s days in France sold for $11.3 million, hammering below the low $10 million estimate. “While it didn’t have the sparks or competition in the sense that you would see for a broadly commercial, vibrant, beautiful painting, it is an important painting of good scale and rarity,” noted Inoue.
One artist who saw a new market benchmark was Michelle Obama portraitist Amy Sherald. Her double portrait The Bathers (2015), depicting two bathing suit-clad young women, sold for $4.3 million at Phillips, against an estimate of $150,000–$200,000. Sold from the collection of Virginia patrons William and Pam Royall, who were avid collectors of African American contemporary painters, the result set a new record for Sherald. “This work really resonates,” said Heirston, pointing to the history of the painting’s subject matter, as Black Americans were long denied access to public spaces. “Her use of grisaille necessitates a going back in time,” Heirston added.
Long undervalued artists seem to be the focus of bidders’ attention. Works by both artists of color and women, Heirston notes, are in demand by museums now addressing historical blindspots in their holdings. “There’s so much institutional interest in redressing lapses and gaps in collections.” That some of these works are also traveling to Asia to be sold, according to Heirston, may signal the buying trend as more than a fleeting market fad. “These boundaries are starting to dissolve.”