Since Sotheby’s began offering Western art in Hong Kong five years ago, the evolution of the art market in the special administrative region has been rapid.
Over the weekend, the auction house announced it sold US$114m-worth (HK$887m) of Modern and contemporary Western art, bringing its total this year so far to a record US$330m (HK$2.57bn)—almost triple the amount sold in the whole of 2020. However, works by Chinese masters including Zao Wou-Ki and Sanyu underperformed, which, together with the withdrawal of Rodin’s Napoleon marble sculpture, worth HK$70m (around US$9m), dragged overall totals below estimate. The Modern art evening sale made HK$485.4m/US$62.4m (low est. HK$648.3m/US$83.3m), while the contemporary evening sale fetched nnHK$490m/US$63m (low est. HK$470.1mA/US$60.4m).
Alex Branczik, who recently left London to become Sotheby’s chairman of Modern and contemporary art in Asia, believes this shift in taste is being driven by millennial buyers. He notes that just under a quarter of of bidders in the firm’s global sales are millennials—four times the number who were active just five years ago. In Hong Kong, that figure is even higher—a third of bidders are under 40. Branczik adds: “It’s no secret that the Asian community is among the most digitally savvy in the world, so our rapid pivot to digitisation has definitely helped in this regard.”
The top five hits — and misses
Two of the biggest guns of the Western canon — Picasso and Basquiat — topped the Modern and contemporary evening sales, selling for US$21.2m (US$24.6m with fees) and US$18m (US$20.9m with fees) respectively. Neither picture had been sold at auction before. Picasso’s portrait of second wife, Jacqueline, was last shown in public in 1975 and was pursued by bidders in Hong Kong, London and New York, eventually selling to an Asian collector. Buyers from the region have long been active in pursuing big-ticket names in Sotheby’s London and New York salerooms; as Branczik notes, in 2020, of the top 20 lots auctioned by Sotheby’s, Asian clients bid on 10 and bought nine. “The new dynamic is that we are increasingly bringing these artists to be sold in Asia, where they can be seen by more people and where the appetite and appreciation is ever growing,” he adds.
Loie Hollowell, Portrait of a Woman
The value of young American painter Loie Hollowell’s canvases has soared by 1,200% on the secondary market over the past three years, and the waiting list for works fresh from the studio is long. So it is hardly surprising that one of her abstract pictures of female genitalia, Portrait of a Woman with Green Hair (2015), more than doubled its high estimate to sell to an online bidder for HK$6.5m (HK$8m with fees). Branczik believes the market for female nudes is strong in Asia, noting that paintings by Amedeo Modigliani and Lucian Freud are particularly in demand. “Tastes in Asia are no more modest than in the West,” he says.
Amoako Boafo, White Hat White Shades (2019)
Only painted two years ago, Amoako Boafo’s White Hat White Shades vaulted over its HK$2.5m-HK$3.5m estimate to sell for HK$4.2m (HK$5.3m with fees). The Ghanaian artist’s meteoric rise in the West has been well documented, as has the flipping of his work—a practice Boafo has tried to put a stop to, apparently unsuccessfully. “We’re seeing huge interest in Boafo from around the globe at the moment. He has a huge following among the younger generation of collectors, who are out in force in Asia in particular,” Branczik says.
Banksy, Kate Moss (2005)
Just as telling as the top lots were those that failed to sell. Among them Banksy’s gaudy screen print of the British supermodel Kate Moss, rendered in the style of Warhol’s Marilyn. Edition number five of five, the print had been expected to fetch HK$12m-HK$18m, but Banksy’s market has cooled slightly in recent months having rocketed to record levels in 2019. “The market has come so far, so quickly for Banksy,” Branczik notes. “We’re still seeing extraordinary prices for prints so there’s clearly a depth and breadth of demand there.” Whether Banksy will break the Asian market in the same way that fellow street artist KAWS has remains to be seen.
It was a pass for three out of five works by the Asian master Zao Wou-ki in the Modern evening sale, including a vibrant aquamarine canvas from 1965 estimated at HK$70m-HK$100m. Branczik puts it down to a lack of interest on the night, pointing out that seven of the top ten prices in the sale were for works by Asian artists: Sanyu, Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki. “I’m a firm believer that art produced in China from the 1980s through to now is significantly important,” Branczik adds, though he notes supply is a problem. “It’s becoming harder and harder to find these works because they already reside in the greatest collections across the globe.”