The sale of the Ullens collection confirms the strength of Chinese art



Two weeks after the news of China’s domination of the global art market, all eyes were focused on the sale of the famous Ullens Collection at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong on 3 April 2011.

The results of the sale reflect the extraordinary robustness of the foundations of China’s Contemporary art scene: many of the works sold for triple, quadruple, ten times (and over) their pre-sale estimates. Total revenue from the 104 lots amounted to HKD 362.9m ($46.68m) excluding costs, i.e. three times the estimated pre-sale total of $16.7m. That is considerably better than the $34m total generated by Sotheby’s Hong Kong from three sales (and 304 lots) at the same sale a year earlier.

Only one work remained unsold: Placebo 5-3 by ZHOU Tiehai (est. HKD 200,000 – 300,000). It should however be noted that collectors had just paid HKD 1m ($128,000) – five times the pre-sale estimate – for his Can’t the Right Make the Left Happy ? and HKD 3m ($385,800) – nearly ten times the pre-sale estimate – for his Mademoiselle Rivière, setting a new personal auction record for the artist.

Zhang Xiaogang: the Jeff Koons of Chinese contemporary art
The price escalation of Chinese art now looks like a permanent race for new records.
The world’s Contemporary artists ranking has again been upset; this time by ZHANG Xiaogang’s triptych Forever lasting Love (1988) – the star lot of the Ullens sale – which fetched the equivalent of $9m.

In effect, Zhang Xiaogang now holds the record for the world’s best-ever auction price for a work of Chinese Contemporary art. This $9m score is better than the best result generated at the height of the Contemporary art boom by CAI Guoqiang’s fourteen (Untitled) powder drawings (HKD 66m or $8.4m) on 25 November 2007 at Christie’s Hong Kong and the record generated by ZENG Fanzhi’s Mask series 1996 No.6 on 24 May 2008 of HKD 67m ($8.6m) at Christie’s Hong Kong on 24 May of that year.

Sotheby’s had high hopes for Zhang’s triptych, and the result was substantially better than was expected: the $9m result was not only triple the pre-sale estimate, it was more than six times the sum it generated at its previous adjudication four years back. On 27 May 2007, the same triptych fetched $1.4m at Christie’s Hong Kong.
With this result Zhang Xiaogang – who in 2008 became the world’s fourth Contemporary artist behind Jeff KOONS, Damien HIRST and Richard PRINCE – would have been second on the 2010 best results podium (between the $7m result for Maurizio CATTELAN’s Untitled installation at Sotheby’s on 12 May 2010 and the $15m result for Jeff Koons’ Balloon Flower (Blue) at Christie’s in New York on 10 November 2010).

The day after this record sale, Sotheby’s Hong Kong held its traditional Contemporary Asian Art sale where buyers fought tooth and nail to carry off the sale’s star lot: Bloodline-Big Family, again, by Zhang Xiaogang. Carrying a pre-sale estimate of HKD 35-40m, the painting fetched HKD 50m, ($6.43m). That is the artist’s second best-ever result.

Among the many 7-figure results from the sale, we note new records for DING Yi whose Two People under a Light fetched HKD 16m ($2m) against an estimate of HKD 1m -1.5m. Ding Yi’s Appearance of Crosses 90-6 fetched HKD 15m ($1.9m) against an estimate of HKD 600,000 -700,000) and WANG Guangyi’s Mao Zedong P2 which fetched a spectacular HKD 16.5m ($2.12m) against an estimate of HKD 1.5m – 2m.

These works from the Ullens Collection are considered fundamental works in the history of Chinese Contemporary art. Some of the pieces were shown at the China/Avant-Garde at the National Art Museum of Beijing in February 1989, a strong exhibition of emerging talent at the time of the terrible massacre in Tian’anmen Square on 4 June of that year.
Somewhat ominously, the Sotheby’s 2011 sale was marred by news of the arrest on the same day of AI Weiwei by the Chinese Police in the framework of an alleged repression of dissident intellectuals