Sotheby’s: 40 years in Asia



An auction house – even one that has existed for 200 years – celebrates its birthday like everyone else, with irrational spending, a big party, compulsive shopping, and lots of alcohol! This weekend, Sotheby’s celebrated its 40 years of operations in Asia in grand style with a Modern and Contemporary Art sales that generated a record turnover (m$97,5) with a very low unsold rate and sales of antiques, jewellery, old master calligraphy and of course wine!

In November 1973 when Hong Kong still belonged to the UK, Sotheby’s orchestrated its first Asian sale, ten years after opening a branch in New York. (Christie’s did not open in New York until 1977 and in Hong Kong until 1986).

On Saturday 5 October 2013, Sotheby’s celebrated its birthday (a little ahead of the actual date), with a prestige sale that probably awakened certain fears of an uncontrolled surge in the prices Contemporary Asian art after generating a number of new records, some enormous gains on certain works and the most lucrative turnover figure in Hong Kong’s art market history.

Lots of records in Modern Art

ZAO Wou-Ki, who died just a few months ago, had no less than six works in the sale, and some of these were very generously estimated. It was therefore not surprising to see his previous auction record beaten three times during the sale: 01/15/82, 05/16/66 and 03/04/60 to 01/02/69 all topped his previous record set for 10/01/68 (HKD 61 million), and his triptych 15/01/82, which fetched m$ 9,675, even entered the top five best auctions results ever hammered in Hong Kong.

The Chinese artist SAN Yu – who also spent much of his career in France – was given pride of place at the Sotheby’s sale. The sale generated the artist’s second best-ever result with a work entitled Goldfish that fetched m$ 7,611. A small canvas in a sale dominated by works with generous dimensions, Sanyu’s work was bid all the way to $ 2500 per square centimetre. Nothing is too surprising in this city where property prices per square meter are among the ten highest in the world!

CHEN Yifei chose the U.S. rather than France to deepen his knowledge of art, and his work Red Flag 1 fetched m$ 9,03, the artist’s best result outside mainland China.

South-Western Asia in the spotlight

Two Indonesian artists, I Nyoman MASRIADI and Rudi MANTOFANI, both born in 1973, also celebrated their 40th birthdays this year and each artist sold a work at the sale for $ 387 000. However for Montofani this amount represented a new record, whereas it for Masriadi’s it was his 12th auction result above USD 300,000!

After Indonesia, the new Eldorado for Contemporary art could well be the Philippines. Spearhead of the younger generation of Filipino artists, Ronald VENTURA saw his Magicland fetch $ 670 800. The work is littered with contemporary references and symbols (a sort of patchwork of Mickey to Minnie, not to mentions unicorns and other childish fantasies). This was the artist’s second best result and, therefore, the second best result for a Filipino artist, since Ventura stands entirely alone at the top of his country’s auction ranking. But he will not be alone for long and is soon likely to be in excellent company: two women artists, the first we already knew, Geraldine JAVIER, and now Nona GARCIA.

Women artists – badly represented throughout the world – are making impressive headway in Filipino Contemporary art. While Nona Garcia’s work was the most affordable of the evening (fetching $ 79 980, it nevertheless quintupled its estimate! With no unsold works, no works sold under USD 20,000 except Makati and one work re-sold for three times its initial purchase price after 3 just years (at Sotheby’s Sunday sale the following day), the young Indonesian artist is capturing the full force of the growth wind running through the Asian art market.

Japanese artists think big!

The enthusiasm was not quite what it used to be… but Japanese artists – first and foremost Takashi MURAKAMI – still manage to generate substantial interest. Murakami’s sculpture Jellyfish Eyes Saki was acquired for m$ 1,29 becoming the first sculpture by the artist to cross the million dollar threshold in two years! As for his diptych measuring more than three meters long and three meters wide (The World Of Sphere), it managed to become the artist’s 3rd best result for a painting.

Yayoi KUSAMA also crossed the USD 1 million threshold (for the 11th time) and for the first time in a year. The work in question was a gigantic canvas entitled Infinity Nest and it fetched m$ 1,161.

The biggest slice of the pie went to China

To celebrate its 40th year in Asia, Sotheby’s pulled out all the stops and – in a manner of speaking – it also set the table for the The Last Supper. Indeed, its star lot was none other than Zeng Fanzhi’s The Last Supper, with which the auctioneer was clearly looking to generate new records. And so it was! Fetching m$ 20,64, the result makes ZENG Fanzhi the fourth most expensive living artist (after Gerhard RICHTER, Jeff KOONS and Jasper JOHNS) in the world. He is also the most expensive living Chinese artist in the world, the most expensive artist under 50 in the world… etc. In short, a bunch of new records for Zeng Fanzhi.

ZHANG Xiaogang had been the most expensive Chinese artist since 2011. Only one of his portraits failed to sell: BLOODLINE-BIG FAMILY: COMRADE NO. 9 was bought in at less than a million dollars.

Apart from this rare failure (5 of the 62 lots remained unsold), it was perfectly logical that the Chinese artists shined the brightest at Sotheby’s birthday sale.

LIU Ye generated a new record with the work Sword that fetched m$ 4,773. This was the 15th occasion that the artist has crossed the million-dollar line at auction since 2010.

There was also another new record for FANG Lijun: his 1994 N6 fetched $ 903 000 (mHKD 7) on Saturday. Three years ago the same work was worth HKD 3.8 million!

The evening ended with the sale of CAI Guoqiang Tiger and Eagle for $ 619 200, far from a record, but a consistent result for an artist none of whose paintings have failed to sell at auction in the past year!

Sotheby’s has just celebrated its 40th year in Asia… but the celebrations could be short lived. At 40 years of age, Sotheby’s is looking jealousy at its rival Christie’s (the leader in Hong Kong for two years now), but also at the newcomers Poly and China, which, with only a few years of existence, are not burdened by the weight of heritage and are not obliged to operate with Western discipline.

But Sotheby’s adventure in Asia will certainly not stop there. With sales held in mainland China since last year (the next is in Beijing in December) and a new exhibition space in Hong Kong, it will have little time to devote to a mid-life crisis!