HONG KONG—During four days of sales at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, the predominantly Asian buyers spent $106 million (excluding watches) on Chinese jade, porcelain, Imperial accessories and ink brushwork paintings.
But it was the contemporary Chinese art sale on the second day that doubled expectations, with a diverse crowd of buyers leaping at works created in this century. Top lots went to Taiwanese, Indonesian, Korean, mainland Chinese and American collectors. (Sotheby’s sales this year were held from April 7-10, three weeks earlier than the usual late April/early May time, when Christie’s still holds its sales.)
The contemporary Chinese art total of $17 million was nearly $4 million more than Sotheby’s inaugural “Contemporary Art Asia” sale held in New York a week earlier (see page 2) and was the highest yet for a Chinese contemporary art sale at Sotheby’s.
Many of the most sought-after works on offer carried relatively low estimates and had been made within the past five years by artists such as Liu Ye (b. 1964), Yue Minjun (b. 1962) and Tang Zhigang (b. 1959). In fact, many were dated 2005, although only two works came directly from the artists, says Sotheby’s contemporary Chinese specialist Evelyn Lin.
An American collector, bidding on the phone, purchased the costliest contemporary work of art, Liu’s irreverent picture of a young girl lighting up before a red sun, Smoke, 2001-02, for $477,483.
The highest prices within the contemporary category, however, were reserved for the modern, mid-20th-century artists who used oil paints to render familiar themes in Chinese ink-brush painting. Sanyu’s much-reproduced, poster-friendly Pink Lotus was sold for $3.6 million to a private Asian collector, setting a record both for the artist and for a Chinese oil painting at auction.
Oil-on-canvas works by Liao Jichun (the Fauvist-influenced Tainan Confucius Temple, 1962) and by Lin Fengmian (a Claude Monet-like Lotus Pond, 1965) each made $953,934. “The market is getting bigger, but it is also getting more difficult for us to find good property, because everyone wants to keep their collection for the future,” explains Sotheby’s Lin.
The opening-day sale of late-19th- and early- 20th-century Chinese paintings being sold by Hong Kong and Shanghai-based collector Robert Chang did not fare as well, with only 58 percent of the lots selling for a total of $5 million (HK$38.7 million), well below the presale estimate of HK$70 million.
T he top lot was Qi Baishi’s Refusing Drink, an ink on hanging scroll that fell for $419,666 to a private buyer on the phone. “The estimates were quite strong, and there was resistance from buyers,” observes Henry Howard-Sneyd, managing director of Sotheby’s Asia and the principal auctioneer. The Chinese paintings sale later in the day totaled a respectable $12.4 million.
The usual centerpiece of Chinese auctions— fine Chinese ceramics and works of art—also performed solidly, totaling $20.5 million, with Asian bidders in the room fighting for the always desirable 16th- and 17th-century blue and white porcelain vases and jars.
The greatest enthusiasm seemed reserved for the last sale of the day—for works once owned by Emperor Qianlong (1736-95). Despite spotty bidding, they made $23.2 million, at the high end of the presale estimates.