Another Sterling week of Hong Kong 20th Century and Contemporary Art sales

Nipping and then some at the high heels of Sotheby’s $88.2 million result for its contemporary art evening sale in Hong Kong on October 6, Christie’s and Phillips (in association with Chinese powerhouse Poly) delivered another $169.3 million in contemporary art on December 2nd & 3rd, further demonstrating the critical role that Hong Kong plays as a key market hub.

The seeming disconnect between buoyant prices in the auction rooms and disturbing local arrests of high-profile pro-democracy activists in the city including media mogul Jimmy Lai, made for a kind of Dickensian Tale of Two Cities.

Sarah Hughes, “High Waters,” oil and acrylic on canvas 68 x 60 in. (172.7 x 152.4 cm.), 2016

Putting that aside, the results were certainly impressive with Christie’s lead off sale on the 2nd pulling in $119.3 million with only five of the 49 lots offered failing to sell for a crisp 10 percent buy-in rate by lot.

Amoako Boafo, “Baba Diop,” oil on canvas
83 1/8 x 66 in. (211 x 167.5 cm.), 2019

More impressively, seven auction records were set, including Shara Hughes lush landscape, “High Waters” from 2016 that made $534,581 (est. $103,652-155,477) andthe 36 year old, Ghana born Amoako Boafo’s striking portrait, “Baba Diop” from 2019 shooting to $1,152,104 (est. $103,652-193,347).

Primary market works by both artists are mostly impossible to source from their galleries so the auction arena is pretty much the lone alternative for landing secondary market fare.

Dana Schutz, “Elevator,” oil on canvas, 136 x 170 in. (345.4 x 431.8 cm.), 2017

At a higher price point, Dana Schutz’s massive composition (136 by 170 inches) “Elevator” from 2017 and previously featured in the Whitney Biennial from that year, soared to a record $6,486,255 (est. $1,943,468-2,591,290).

It shattered the mark set at Sotheby’s New York in May 2019 when a similarly scaled but somewhat smaller “Civil Planning” from 2004 made $2,42,000.

Nicolas Party, “Still Life,” pastel on canvas, 58 7/8 x 66 7/8 in. (149.7 x 170 cm.), 2014

The big handful of records also included Nicolas Party’s jumbo pastel on canvas, “Still Life” from 2014 that brought $1,354,273 (est. $673,735-932,864 and Joyce Pensato’s cartoonish styled enamel on linen composition, “Sunset Batman” at 70 by 90 inches from 2016 that hit $291,590 (est. $233,216-362,751).

Joyce Pensato, “Sunset Batman,” enamel and metallic paint on linen
70 x 90 in. (177.8 x 228.6 cm.), 2016

Pensato passed away last year at age 77 yet her work looks punkishly fresh.

Yoshitomo Nara, “Agent Orange (In the Milky Lake),” acrylic on canvas
89 5/8 x 76 3/8 in. (227.5 x 194 cm.), 2009

Heading back to the cluster of works that exceeded five million dollars, Yoshitomo Nara’s iconically cute “Agent Orange (In the Milky Lake)” figure from 2006 reined in $8,550,063 (est. $6,478,225-9,069,515).

It was one of 21 works out of the 44 that sold that came to market backed by a third party or in-house guarantee, meaning, more or less, that almost half the sale was a foregone conclusion.

Andy Warhol, “Dollar Sign,” acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas
90 x 70 in. (229 x 178 cm.), 1981

On a negative note, though Andy Warhol’s fabled, hand-painted soup can, “Small Campbell’s Soup Can (Chili Beef)” from 1962 in casein, metallic paint and graphite on linen and scaled at 20 by 16 inches sold for $6,065,000 (est. $6-8 million), and presumably to its third party guarantor, it came up short from its last appearance at Christie’s New York in November 2014 when it made a heftier $7,445,000.

A later and much larger Warhol, “Dollar Sign” from 1981 at 90 by 70 inches also made the top ten in prices, realizing $6,564,012 (est. $5,959,967-8,551,257).

Both lots hammered below their low estimates, indicating a softening of the artist’s remarkable market in what may be a sea change in taste for this Post-War titan.

In opposition to that, Yayoi Kusama’s consummate and obsessive “A-Pumpkin-SPW” from 2014 and executed in acrylic on a 44 1/8 by 57 1/4 inch canvas fetched an estimate busting $5,008,866 (est. $1,166,522-1,944,203).

Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec, “Pierreuse,” oil on canvas 28 ¼ x 19 1/8 in. (71.7 x 48.5 cm.), 1889

While the majority of the contemporary action took place in the Hong Kong live-stream leg of the two-city sale before it beamed over to New York and the auction baton of Adrien Meyer, the highest price and most hotly pursued work of the sale hailed from the 19th century and the estate of Mrs. Henry Ford II.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s gorgeous standing portrait,“Pierreuse” from 1889, depicting an auburn haired woman in a black dress and with her head turned away from the viewer and a wisp of hair covering her right eye, sparked a bidding battle that drove the price to the top lot high of $9,062,000 (est. $3-5 million).

Midway through the battle auctioneer Meyer accurately quipped,
“You won’t find another one,” deftly drawing out more bids.

It came to market without any guarantee.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “eune femme allaitant son enfant–Madame Renoir et son fils Pierre,” oil on canvas, 28 ¾ x 21 3/8 in. (73.1 x 54.2 cm.), 1886

A less impressive outcome greeted the last lot in the sale, Pierre Auguste-Renoir’s charming depiction of his wife nursing their infant in a garden, “Jeune femme allaitant son enfant-Madame Renoir et son fils Pierre” from 1886 that made $2,430,000 (est. $2.5-3.5 million).

It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 1988, near the height of that auction bubble, for a whopping $8.8 million. Ouch!

The live-stream action shifted to Phillips and its new association with Poly Auction at the JW Marriott on December 3, tallying an impressive $50 million for the 29 lots sold and racking up four auction records.

A scant three lots failed to find buyers for a skinny buy-in rate of just six percent.

Asian artists dominated the sale, led by Yoshitomo Nara’s outlandishly adorable “Hothouse Doll” from 1995 in acrylic on canvas and living room scaled at 47 1/8 by 43 ¼ inches that roared to $13,301,835 (est. $6.4-8.9 million).

It was the second highest price garnered for the rock star chased artist and came to market backed by a third party guarantee.

Salman Toor, “Group Dance,” oil on linen, 119 x 152 cm. (46 7/8 x 59 7/8 in.), 2012

On the actual record breaking side, Pakistani born Salman Toor’s multi-figured exuberant scene shadowed by a darker reality, “Group Dance” from 2012 raced to $520,128 (est. $380-480,000).

First shown at Karachi’s Canvas Gallery in 2014, the work also portrays the walled mansion hulking behind the dancing figures, presenting a kind of impossible barrier for the frenetic servant class figures in the foreground.

Lucas Arruda, Untitled, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm. (19 5/8 x 23 5/8 in.), 2013

A record was also set for Lucas Arruda’s darkly luminous abstraction, “Untitled” from 2013 and small scaled at 19 5/8 by 23 5/8 inches that rose to $487,620 (est. $192,000-321,000).

It was both Toor’s and Arruda’s auction debut in Asia.


Matthew Wong, “River at Dusk,” oil on canvas
203.2 x 178 cm. (80 x 70 1/8 in.), 2018.

But the big record that fell was for Matthew Wong’s Fauvist infused palette and decidedly romantic, “River at Dusk” from 2018 that rushed to $4,871,040 (est. $897,000-1.280,000).

It brushed past the previous mark set in October at Christie’s New York when “Shangri-la” from 2017 made $4,470,000.

The Canadian born and for a while Hong Kong bred Wong, who committed suicide in 2019 and only began his painting career in 2012, has become a saint for the art market with his entire auction career taking place in 2020 with 15 works selling between $62,500 and the current record.

His story is certainly quieter than say Jean-Michel Basquiat’s but the global art market is clearly infatuated with his short-lived oeuvre.

Speaking of Basquiat, the artist’s aptly titled “Ancient Scientist” from
1984 and executed in an alchemical mix of acrylic, oil stick, Xerox and paper collage on canvas sold for $7,524,570 (est. $6.4-8.9 million).

Of the few European entries in the sale, Gerhard Richter’s small but super-charged “Abstraktes Bild (682-4)” from 1988 and streaked in shades of Ferrari red, made $4,168,635 (est. $2.56-3.85 million).

Richter is making deep inroads in Asia, no doubt sparked by the whopping price achieved for his 78 ¾ by 78 34 inch “Abstraktes Bild (649-2)” from 1987 that sold to the Pola Museum of Art in Hakone Japan for $27,694,000 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on October 6, the highest price realized for any Western artwork sold at auction in Asia.

The autumn season in Hong Kong, despite the alarming political strife, must be a welcoming sign for the Covid hit art market.

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