On Wednesday, Art Basel’s latest iteration in Hong Kong opened to VIP fair-goers, and despite being halved in size as a result of travel restrictions, megawatt purchases are already taking place at the fair.
One came in the early hours of the fair, when Lévy Gorvy gallery, of New York, Palm Beach, Paris, London and Hong Kong, sold a monumental Joan Mitchell painting, 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock (ca. 1962), for a price around $20 million to a private collector. (A representative for the gallery declined to name the collector or specify the buyer’s location.) The sale signals the Asian art market’s enduring strength, even as the pandemic rages on.
12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock was one of the star lots offered just three years ago in November 2018, during a blockbuster auction of collector Barney Ebsworth’s estate at Christie’s in New York. There, the painting was expected to fetch between $14 million and $16 million. In a disappointing turn, it ended up hammering below the low estimate, going to an American buyer for a final price of $14.6 million with premium.
In an interview, Brett Gorvy, cofounder of Lévy Gorvy, said the decision to approach the American collector to consign the Mitchell painting for the Hong Kong fair, which had a $19.5 million asking price, was driven by bullish demand in the region for masterpiece-level paintings. To tap that excitement, the gallery has been mounting one-work exhibitions in cities like Hong Kong as part of a broader strategy to reel in potential buyers. “There’s a strong interest in Mitchell in Asia,” he said. “It is a territory where you’ve got incredibly hungry avid collectors, who have been collecting in other fields and now who have been moving very quickly into major Western art.”
The Art Basel sale marks the highest publicly recorded price for the artist, putting it above Mitchell’s 1969 canvas Blueberry, which sold at auction in May 2018 for $16.6 million and set the artist’s auction record. According to Gorvy, there are Mitchell works that have sold privately for more than $20 million, however.
The market momentum surrounding Mitchell’s art has slowed since 2018. While an upcoming retrospective devoted to the Abstract Expressionist is set to open at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in September, without the spotlight of a New York venue, her market plateau is likely to continue in the West, Gorvy said. But the appetite among buyers for Mitchell’s “strong female voice” is still ripe, particularly in Asia. In countries with few museums with deep Western art holdings, fairs can act as one of the main venues for seeing high-quality works.
Gorvy, who was unable to travel to the fair but worked remotely with the gallery’s Hong Kong team, said that this year’s edition was still buzzing with activity in its early hours, adding that there remains a “feeling of growth” and “constant change” in Hong Kong.