NEW YORK—Sotheby’s Hong Kong Spring sale series totaled HK$3.49 billion ($447 million), up considerably from last year’s total of HK$2 billion ($256.2 million).
Amid skepticism from some observers, prices for contemporary Chinese artworks have once again soared past expectations, leaving some to wonder if this second boom, which has come so quickly on the heels of the market downturn, is sustainable.
The auction house’s headline offering, “The Ullens Collection–The Nascence of Avant-Garde China,” was assembled by Belgian collectors Baron Guy Ullens and his wife Myriam. It, included seminal works of Chinese contemporary art from the 1980s and 90s, several of which have rarely been seen since their creation and acquisition. The auction was 100 percent sold and contributed HK$427.2 billion ($54.8 million) to the total.
Forever Lasting Love (Triptych), a monumental oil on canvas, 1988 by Zhang Xiaogang (b. 1958), set an auction record of HK$79 million ($10.1 million), selling far above the high estimate of HK$30 million.
The rise in prices for Zhang Xiaogang has been one of the most dramatic in the contemporary art market in recent years. In 2005, New York dealer Max Protetch was selling works by the artist for under $100,000. By early 2006, when Sotheby’s held its first sale of contemporary Asian art in New York (ANL, 4/25/06), the record leapt to $979,200 for the 1998 painting, Bloodline Series: Comrade No. 120, a 74-by-59-inch oil on canvas that had been estimated at $250,000/350,000. The price stunned many collectors and dealers, including Protetch himself, who told ARTnewsletter at the time: “It took me by surprise. I thought we were getting good prices last year ”.
In 2007 the artist joined the Pace Gallery, where he had his first solo show, in New York, in 2008. Since 2006, at least 50 paintings by Zhang Xiaogang have sold for over $1 million each at auction according to a database. The day following the Ullens sale, another piece from the artist’s “Bloodline Series” brought $7.3 million.
Apart from Zhang Xiaogang, additional records were set for artists including: Zhang Peili (b. 1957) for Series “X?” No. 3, 1986, which sold for HK$23 million ($2.97 million); Geng Jianyi (b. 1962) for Two People Under a Light, 1985, which realized HK$18.6 million ($2.38 million); Ding Yi (b. 1962) for Appearance of Crosses 90-6, 1990, an acrylic on canvas which sold for HK$17.46 million ($2.23 million); Yu Youhan (b. 1943) for 1985-4, acrylic on canvas, 1985, that sold for HK$14.1 million ($1.8 million); and Liu Wei (b. 1965) for No Smoking, 1998, which sold for HK$14.1 million ($1.8 million).
A work by Wang Guangyi (b. 1957), Mao Zedong: P2, 1988, sold for HK$19.1 million ($2.5 million), the third-highest auction price for the artist.
Fine art category totals included modern Chinese paintings which took HK$648 million ($83 million); 20th-century Chinese art, which realized HK$236 million ($30.2 million); contemporary Asian art, which took in HK$183 million ($23.5 million); modern and contemporary southeast Asian paintings, which took in HK$108 million ($13.8 million); as well as Chinese ceramics and works of art, which brought HK$583 million ($75 million).
In the contemporary Asian art sale, which was 88 percent sold by lot, and 93 percent sold by value, a record was set for Li Songsong (b. 1973). Li’s China Past [diptych], 2006, was sold for HK$4.2 million ($541,026). Untitled No. 11, 2001, an oil by Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964), went for HK$10.8 million ($1.4 million).
The modern Chinese paintings auction was 99.7 percent sold by lot, and 99.2 percent sold by value. The top lot was Spring Mountains in Sichuan, 1953, ink and color on paper, hanging scroll, 1953, by Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), which sold for HK$64.5 million ($8.3 million) at three times the HK$18 million estimate. It was followed by The Lion Grove Garden, 1987, ink and color on paper, by Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010) sold for HK$28.7 million ($3.7 million).
C.K. Cheung, head of the fine Chinese paintings department said the sale “went from strength to strength with bidding pushing many prices past pre-sale estimates. While buying in today’s sale was overwhelmingly Asian, the ultimate prices were due to active participation of under-bidders from around the world.”
In the 20th-century Chinese art sale, which was 89 percent sold by lot and 94 percent sold by value, most works surpassed estimates. Appearing in the market for the first time in decades, the diptych, Inspiration Hivernale, oil on canvas, painted between 1987 and 1990 by Chu Teh-chun (b. 1920) and signed in pinyin and Chinese, was bought by a private Asian buyer for HK$28.7 million ($3.7 million). Pins Landais, 1955, oil on canvas by Zao Wou-ki (b. 1921) sold at five times the HK$4 million high estimate for HK$23 million ($3 million) and Amitie, oil on canvas, executed in 2003 by Chen Yifei (1946-2005) was bought for HK$17.5 million ($2.2 million).
The modern and contemporary southeast Asian sale posted two new artist records for Hendra Gunawan and Filipino artist Ronald Ventura. Penari Ular (Snake Dancer), oil on canvas, 1977, by Gunawan (1918-1983) sold for HK$16.3 million ($2 million) while Ventura’s Grayground, 2011, graphite, acrylic and oil on canvas, sold for HK$8.4 million ($1 million) at twenty-four times the high estimate of HK$350,000. Mok Kim Chuan, head of southeast Asian paintings said “Grayground was competed for by 15 bidders and our strong results both for established names and for younger artists making their first appearance at auction demonstrate a market in a healthy state of expansion.”