Two rare calligraphy pieces by the late Hong Kong street artist Tsang Tsou-choi to be auctioned at a Sotheby's sale tonight are expected to bring a record price for a work by the man known as the King of Kowloon.
The pieces could bring bids of more than HK$500,000 at the auction at the Convention and Exhibition Centre, but both the auctioneer and a long-timer advocate for Tsang hope the works remain in Hong Kong.
Calligraphy on Utility Box No 1 and No 2 will be auctioned during the second part of the sale of the Ullens Collection, a collection of Chinese contemporary artworks gathered by Belgian couple Guy and Myriam Ullens.
The two works, each featuring Tsang's signature ink calligraphy on a 1.6-metre-high grey metal box, resemble the iconic street calligraphy he painted on electrical junction boxes across Kowloon. However, most of these street sites have since been painted over by the authorities. Only four remain intact, including one on a pillar at the Star Ferry pier in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Both lots to be auctioned tonight have a pre-sale estimate between HK$200,000 and HK$300,000, but they are expected to sell for more than the record for a Tsang work. That was set in 2009 when a calligraphy piece painted on canvas sold for HK$500,000, far exceeding the pre-sale estimate of HK$70,000.
The utility box pieces were executed in 2000 and were originally owned by Hong Kong's Hanart TZ Gallery. Sotheby's said the works were conceived and prepared for an exhibition in Taiwan. However, the boxes were not shown at that exhibition and the gallery confirmed that the Ullens later acquired them.
Also being auctioned tonight is Tsang's calligraphy on a 2.3-metre long piece of cotton cloth. This piece has a pre-sale estimate of between HK$150,000 and HK$200,000.
Jonathan Wong Kit-yu, senior specialist in contemporary Asian art at Sotheby's Hong Kong, said it was the first time the utility boxes had appeared in an auction and they were among Tsang's rarest works.
'These two pieces are closest to the original spirit of the King of Kowloon's street works in Hong Kong,' he said. 'We hope they can remain in Hong Kong, either in the hands of local collectors or institutions.'
Artist Joel Chung Yin-chai, a long-time friend of Tsang and a champion of his legacy, said many individuals, including himself, gave objects - paper, wood panel or canvas - to Tsang to paint on. He said the two utility boxes were his most carefully planned and purposely made works.
'Compared with works on paper or canvas, these strike a chord with those we once saw on the street. They are significant pieces,' said Chung, who put forward the record-setting Tsang canvas in 2009. 'However, it will be a pity if these pieces can't be seen in public after the sale. They should be owned by a public institution, which can preserve them for the people of Hong Kong.'
Tsang's street calligraphy, in which he proclaimed himself as the King of Kowloon, have been widely recognised as an important chapter in Hong Kong's collective memory and a representation of local identity. His works took the international stage when they were exhibited at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003.
Tsang was born in Guangdong in 1921 and he arrived, barely literate, in Hong Kong aged 16. At 35 he began to spread his graffiti around town and continued until his later years when he switched to work on paper, household linens, and similar items. He died in 2007.
The amount, in Hong Kong dollars, that Tsang's painted board fetched at auction on October 31, 2004, in what was his first major commercial sale