The Hong Kong’s marathon



The official Hong Kong marathon is not until February… but the week of sales that just ended in the former British Colony has left art collectors and market players exhausted after some twenty auctions and at least as many exhibitions.

The week began on Friday morning at Bonhams, which has, over recent years, been trying to diversify its sales locations. Already operating in San Francisco and Dubai, Bonhams opened its HK branch in 2007.
This 23 Novembre, Bonhams offered over one hundred and twenty lots, and barely half found buyers, generating no more than $2.9m (excluding fees), far behind the minimum $11.3m anticipated by the auctioneer.
With only 6 lots exceeding the $130,000 threshold, Bonhams reaped the meagre fruits of a sale that was far too oriented towards the Modern masters. In lining up the likes of Li Keran, Zhang Daqian, Wu Guanzhong, and Qi Baishi, Bonhams thought it would attract Chinese collectors en masse; however that was not the case. Three out of five QI Baishi works failed to sell as did two of the four works by LI Keran, despite the latter’s authorship of a new record a few months ago. However, two works by WU Guanzhong fetched good results: Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou went for $451,500, within the estimated range, and Lacebark Pine in the Beijing Imperial Palace fetched $413,000. There was also SAN Yu’s White Chrysanthemums in Yellow Vase which sold for $142,000. SAN Yu was much in the spotlight this week with thirteen of his works offered between Bonhams, Christie’s and Poly Auction.

Indeed, Poly Auction, held its first HK sale on Saturday 26. This first sale outside of mainland China for the no. 4 auction operator in the world attracted a large crowd of Chinese collectors. The success of the sale was immediate with $67m (including fees, all sales combined) from four sales this weekend representing a superb start to its arrival in Hong Kong. Indeed Poly’s first sales total is even higher than that of its Chinese rival and world no. 3, China Guardian, which generated $58m (including fees) last month from its first sales in Hong Kong.
While Bonhams had little success with Modern Chinese artists, Poly had very different results. In an auction room with a distinctly Chinese atmosphere (the sale was conducted in neither of Hong Kong’s two official languages, English and Cantonese… but in Mandarin), one after another of the lots presented found buyers, often above the estimated price range.
Indeed, as of the second and third lots of the sale – two works by SAN Yu – the bidding became frenetic: his Nude fetched $967,500 and then his Horses rambling on the grassland went for $1.5m. Lot no. 4 added further excitement to the already very noisy room when CHU Teh-Chun’s Untitled 248 was bid all the way to $645,500, more than four times its low estimate. Indeed, the works of Chu Teh-Chun aroused enormous interest this week and, at Poly, his 4 works proposed on Saturday afternoon generated a total of $5.6m. Strangely, his master ZAO Wou-Ki fared a little less well: his 1.4.82, the star lot of the sale, sold for $1.4m, one million less than its low estimate, and a smaller and older work titled 18.3.67 sold within its estimated range at $130,000.

Less noisy and chaotic, but again, with works by Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki, Christie’s held its Saturday sale of Modern and Contemporary Asian Art in a crowded room, nervously waiting to see the strength of the Asian market after the mixed signals from the New York market (poor results for Impressionism, and success of Post-War & Contemporary sale). The first applause (and unfortunately the only one in the evening) was generated by the sale of Chu Teh-Chun’s La forêt blanche II (1987) for $6.8m, a new record for the artist, and one of only two records during the session – the other record rewarded somewhat less spectacularly an Abstract Triptych by CHEONG Soo Pieng at $451,500m.
While his disciple produced a new record at Poly, Zao Wou-Ki was not ignored by any means at Christie’s where his 15.5.60 fetched $3.9m (his sixth best result to date) and his 23.05.61, created a year later, fetched $2.8m.
SAN Yu and ZENG Fanzhi accounted for the other best hammer prices in the evening’s top five: SAN Yu’s Pot de chrysanthèmes roses fetched $3.7m, double its low estimate, and Zeng Fanzhi’s Mask Series N10 went for $967,500m, just below its low estimate, which was a slight disappointment for this work presented as the link in the chain between Contemporary Western Art and Contemporary Asian art. Works by ZHANG Xiaogang also struggled at Christie’s, only reaching their low estimates, and a painting by LIU Ye fetched $1m, versus an estimated $1.5m, despite being plastered on every bus shelter in the city. There were however a few positive surprises: CAI Guoqiang’s Man, eagle and Eye in the sky: eye-kite flying people fetched $774,000, $130,000 more than its high estimate. At $122,500, Rudi MANTOFANI’s sculpture “Cahaya Bumi (light earth)” became the artist’s best result for a sculpture. In effect, all of Montofani’s sculptures presented at auction since 2007 have found takers, proving the public’s appetite for this type of work.
In total Christie’s generated $46.5m from thirty-nine lots (87% sold rate) i.e. $16.8m more than the $29.7m expected.
But it was not over for Christie’s, since the following day (Sunday) the English auctioneer held a marathon sale of five hundred and thirty-nine lots. Despite a large number of unsold lots (one hundred and ten), Christie’s concluded its week of Hong Kong sales with a total of $75m from Fine Art sales alone.

The marathon ended on Monday morning at Seoul Auction, which for several years now has organised two sales per year in Hong Kong. Seoul Auction has long been trying to sell Western Contemporary art in Asia, particularly in Seoul and Hong Kong. Monday morning was no exception, with more or less successful results: Andy WARHOL’s Panda Bear remained unsold, but a collector purchased a Let us pray by Damien HIRST for $387,000. The star lot of the sale was none other than a work by the Korean artist Ufan LEE. However, in an almost empty room, From Point triggered little excitement. Estimated at $2m – $2.6m, it went under the hammer at just $2m. With fourteen lots unsold out of fifty, Seoul Auction probably suffered from being the last sale on the list of the Hong Kong sales. Especially after a weekend where one could see Damien Hirst’s painted drums and guitar sell at Ravenel on Sunday evening, or attend a particularly Japanese sale at United Asian Auctioneers where four works by Kusama, six lots signed Yoshimoto Nara and six works by Murakami (who, coincidentally, is exhibited at the HK Gagossian as of this week) were on offer.