Christie’s Hong Kong Sales Smaller but Still Strong

By Alexandra A. Seno

HONG KONG— Held May 24, Christie’s Hong Kong spring sale of Asian contemporary and Chinese 20th-century art saw healthy results, due in large part to its more careful selection of works, smaller scale, and tighter focus on what old-money Chinese art collectors covet. Quality works by Chinese masters from the 1950s and 1960s held their prices or established new records, while art created on the mainland in the last 20 years — a category that had become fashionable in the last decade among American and European collectors, who account for 90 percent of the market — continued to underperform. Eric Chang, Christie’s senior vice president, international director of 20th century Chinese and Asian contemporary art, said after the sale: “The results, which nearly doubled pre-sale expectations and saw over 90 percent of lots selling within or above their high estimate, prove that our specialists brought together the right mix of works and matched them with attractive estimates to best meet the current market.” The auction brought in HK$181,657,500 (US$23,379,320), selling an impressive 34 of 38 lots, for 89 percent sold by lot and 98 percent by value. The top earner was a painting by the late, European-trained Sanyu, one of the biggest names among 20th-century Chinese artists. A collector paid HK$42,100,000 for the work, Cats and Birds, setting a new auction record for the artist.

The other highlights of the sale were two oil paintings by France-based Chinese abstract painter Zao Wou-ki from the collection of the Harvard Art Museum. The university offered the pair — Nous Deux (We two) and Vent et Poussière (Wind and dust) — to raise cash for its acquisition fund, bringing in a combined total of HK$45 million as a result. Both works were done in 1957, the year after Zao’s wife left him and his painting style began to move in a more expressionistic direction. The striking Nous Deux, a canvas measuring 63 ½ by 78 ½ inches, became the second most expensive Zao ever sold at auction, going for HK$35,380,000 including buyer’s premium (est. HK$10–15 million). Overall, works by Zao, Sanyu, and Lin Fengmian — all painters who have tried to reconcile their Asian cultural aesthetics with the kind of Western art they saw as students in the first half of the 20th century — stood out as the stars of the auction. These artists have long been collected by the business and culture elites in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and more recently on mainland China. The selection of contemporary Chinese art was noticeably smaller, albeit tightly edited. This more in-your-face category, which includes such key names as Yue Minjun and Zeng Fangzhi, has been hard to move at auctions lately, after a five-year boom was dragged down by the economic crisis last fall. At a modern and contemporary art sale held this month in Hong Kong by Seoul Auction, South Korea’s biggest auctioneer, a number of top Chinese lots did not find buyers.
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