Repeat sales in Contemporary Chinese art…



Nearly two months after Sotheby’s, it was Christie’s turn to organise a major sale of Contemporary Asian art in Hong Kong. Whereas Sotheby’s added considerable appeal to its sale with the superb Ullens Collection, Christie’s relied on a mixed catalogue with Korean, Indonesian and Japanese artists together with an introductory sale of a private collection.

An un-named private collection, but nevertheless containing known works since 13 of the 14 lots offered by Christie’s at the start of its sale had been previously acquired at auction between 2006 and 2008. This provided an excellent opportunity to gauge the new price levels being practiced in Contemporary Chinese art; prices that were already two years back on a very steep ascent.
However, with only 8 of the 14 lots sold (42% unsold) and a revenue total for the private collection of HKD 86.9 m (USD $11.1m) versus an estimated range of HKD 120 – 154 million, the sale was a relative failure for the auctioneer and it did not augur well for the rest of the day. Indeed, it wasn’t until the evening’s third lot that the hammer was actually used, and that was for a work by YUE Minjun (Portrait of the artists and his friends) which fetched only HKD 20m (estimated HKD 25m – 30m), just HKD 2m more than the HKD 18m it generated in 2007. Considering that it was one of the sale’s three star lots (all with estimates over HKD 25m), the result was particularly disappointing. Yue Minjun’s work nevertheless attracted some enthusiastic bidding: his The Massacre at Chios generated HKD 28.5m, the artist’s 4th best-ever auction result and his Red Boat sold for HKD 13m rounding off a good evening for the artist who had not sold anything for more than USD 1.7 million since 2008! As for ZHANG Xiaogang – a regular setter of new personal records and whose Portrait in Yellow (estimated HKD 25 – 30m) featured on the cover of the sale’s catalogue – the work failed to attract a single bid and remained in the possession of the seller who had acquired it for HKD 20m in 2007. It seems that Christie’s estimated 25% price increase over 4 years was far too optimistic.
In fact, the lots that did find buyers hardly even reached their 2007/2008 prices! This was notably the case for CAI Guoqiang: six of the 14 drawings acquired for HKD 66m (4.7m each) in November 2007 were offered at the Christie’s sale in a two-drawing panels for HKD 6 – 8m each. Of the three panels, only one found a buyer at HKD 5m (i.e. HKD 2.5m per drawing), representing a substantially lower unit price than was paid in 2007. The relative failure of the sale will no doubt prompt new Chinese collectors to be a little more patient in the resale of their acquisitions.

Nonetheless, there was little patience concerning Composition N 143 by CHU Teh-Chun. Its owner had acquired the piece just 24 months earlier for HKD 5m and it sold for HKD 15m!
The second part of the sale provided a measure of relief for the art market with only 20% unsold and a revenue total much closer to the auctioneer’s estimates (despite their height…).
Five of the six works by ZAO Wou-Ki presented at the opening of the sale were acquired, and three signed the best results of the sale (22.7.64 fetched HKD 31m, La mare aux diables fetched HKD 21 and Cerf volant et oiseaux fetched HKD 31m).
It was interesting to note that Christie’s decided not to limit its sale to Chinese art as it has usually done in the past. The evening ended with works by I Nyoman MASRIADI, Yoshitomo NARA, Aya TAKANO, So Young CHOI and Takashi MURAKAMI and apart from the latter’s work, all the non-Chinese pieces reached past their low estimates.
Zhang Xiogang’s Yellow Portrait may have been refused earlier in the day, but his more conventional (for belonging to the Bloodline series) Bloodline : Big Family, No. 9 and his Bloodline : Big Family – Brother and Sister were acquired for above their low estimates at the evening sale. Another “star” of Chinese Contemporary art, ZENG Fanzhi, saw two out of three works presented sell for above their low estimates with a handsome gain for the seller of Tiananmen which fetched HKD 12 million, i.e. 2.3 times the price paid 26 months earlier in October 2009 (HKD 5.2 million).

With 24 of the total 57 lots having already been sold at auction and only 4 of these 24 previous sales dating back beyond 2006, Christie’s had made a very different tactical choice to Sotheby’s (the sale of the Ullens collection highlighted the work of a collector who was passionate, entrepreneurial and ahead of the art markets trends and speculations) by opting for works that the market was already familiar with. This strategy was nearly riskier than expected with the first part of the sale narrowly escaping a complete failure. However, fortunately, the second part of sale was saved by the good results of the Post-War artists. Christie’s had hoped to generate new records for Contemporary artists; but five of the evening’s best results came from artists who are today over 90!