The global pandemic caused auction sales to fall 20 percent in 2020 due to the cancellation of live auctions and the improvisational nature of the hybrid auctions that replaced them. In many respects, keeping the drop to only 20 percent was a remarkable display of global demand for art at the top auction houses. Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips have bounced back in 2021 to post auction volumes at or above pre-pandemic levels.
Auction house executives often point to the boost in buying from clients based in Asia to explain last year’s mitigated fall and this year’s strong rise.
In December 2020, Hong Kong unexpectedly outpaced sales in New York and London by a meaningful margin. The results demonstrated an important shift in the dynamic between the global sale centers. Asian purchasing power has only continued into the most recent spring and summer auction season.
According to a recent report published by London art market data firm Pi-eX, auction sales in China increased to $1.2 billion in the second quarter of this year, up from the $734 million total generated in 2019. That’s a 69-percent rise. Asia’s sales surpassed U.S. in the same period. North America, which is normally the largest regional market, failed to bounce back to its 2019 level. The U.S. saw a 16-percent drop from its 2019 level instead.
In a recent report on its sales volume from the first half of 2021, Christie’s saw Asian buyers take home a historic high of 39 percent of the sales volume across categories. Phillips saw the highest increase in sales of the top three houses from the second quarter of 2019 to 2020, up 34 percent. Likewise, Sotheby’s sales run from its Hong Kong hub reached $932 million, up 20 percent from last year.
An analysis of data across nine modern and contemporary art sales at the three houses between the months of April to July saw more higher-priced lots by Western artists offered. In past seasons, several of the top sale prices for individual lots were achieved by French-Chinese abstract painters Zao Wou-Ki and Sanyu. These artists have long held dominant market share in the Hong Kong sales. But this season, both Jean-Michel Basquiat and Pablo Picasso had market shares among the top Asian artists but still behind Japanese contemporary artist Yoshitomo Nara and Sanyu. The selection of artists now more closely follows the make up of sales in the West, where Picasso and Basquiat rank as the two highest-grossing artists.
Nara achieved the highest market share across the modern and contemporary categories with a total turnover of HKD $391.7 million ($50.3 million). Sanyu came in second with a total turnover of HKD 282 million ($37.2 million).
One explanation for the change lies in the hybrid sales model, with its emphasis on participation from any location. Another is that the pandemic was more pronounced in the West in 2020 before a vaccine was discovered. As a result, the auction houses tried to capitalize on bidding from Asia.
In July, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Asia, Yuki Terase, told ARTnews that there had been a recent shift in attention among Asian collectors to blockbuster works by Western artists. Works by Basquiat, Picasso, Gerhard Richter, Roy Lichtenstein, and Clyfford Still accounted for half of the top 10 lots sold in the last series of Hong Kong evening sales—works by historical Asian artists made up the other half.
In a video interview for ARTnews Live in February, contemporary art specialist Koji Inoue said that during the last economic recession in 2008, contemporary Chinese artists were relegated to the tail end of Hong Kong auctions. That was a strategy to attract audiences in the American and European market. Now, Inoue said, the makeup of those sales between top Western and Eastern artists is balancing out.
Among the top sellers in the Hong Kong evening sales was Basquiat’s 1982 painting Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face), which sold for $30.2 million at Christie’s in May. The second was Picasso’s late-career portrait Buste de matador (1970) sold in Sotheby’s five-lot curated “ICONS” sale for $18 million. A decade earlier it sold at Sotheby’s in London for $7 million. Both paintings went to buyers in Asia this season.
On the heels of a major retrospective that opened in April at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nara’s Missing in Action (2000), which features the artist’s signature cherubic protagonist, fetched HKD 123.7 million ($15.9 million) and achieved the second highest auction price for the artist. It was also the third-most-expensive lot overall in those sales.
Among the works with the most competitive bidding were those by young artists like Emily Mae Smith, Loie Hollowell, and Salman Toor. Each one has seen escalating prices in Hong Kong (and elsewhere.) Auction houses continue to prioritize visibility for women artists and artists of color, groups that have long been under-presented in evening sale offerings.
Two works by Smith, known for her paintings of anthropomorphic brooms, were among the most in-demand lots of the evening sales. Broom Life (2014), which depicts Smith’s animated broom lounging on top of a melting ice cube, sold for an exceptionally high hammer ratio of 25. (The hammer ratio is the price paid divided by the low estimate; a high hammer ratio reflects strong bidding, usually from a large number of bidders or two very determined ones.) Among the other artists with the highest hammer ratios in the evening sales were Matthew Wong, Joel Mesler, and Jadé Fadojutimi.
In the day sales, fast-rising Japanese-Brazilian painter Asuka Anatascia Ogawa, whose starkly painted images of androgynous children debuted at Blum and Poe Tokyo in a solo exhibition in 2020, saw the highest demand among bidders. Her double-figure painting Petropolis sold for HKD 1.37 million ($177,000), 13 times the estimate of HKD 100,000 ($12,900) at Sotheby’s.