Art market holding up, early Hong Kong auction results show

While some lots went unsold, receipts from Sotheby's modern and contemporary Asian art sale were only slightly down on last year; Jack Ma-Zeng Fanzhi work fetches HK$42 million

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 October, 2015, 5:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 October, 2015, 7:08pm

Despite some concerns that China’s economic slowdown would lend a subdued air to Hong Kong auction rooms this month, results from the first few days of sales suggest the art market remains fairly resilient.

Sotheby’s modern and contemporary Asian art evening sale is one of the highlights of each auction season and this year's sale, held on October 4, saw buyers snap up art worth HK$596 million,  including fees. That was down only slightly on proceeds from the same sale a year ago - which fetched HK$615 million, albeit from fewer lots; this may be a reflection of collectors’ reluctance to part with top items amid today’s economic downturn. Still, this year's total beat the pre-sale estimate of HK$420 million, even when discounting the fees, of 12 to 25 per cent, that the latter figure did not include.

The piece that sold for the highest price on Sunday evening was Kusama Yayoi’s No. Red B, which fetched HK$54.5 million, including fees - well above an estimate of HK$30 million to HK$40 million. In general, Japanese and Korean artists have done very well this season, with all works on offer at Sotheby’s October 4 sale finding buyers. The day before, Bonhams also sold a work by Kusama during its first modern and contemporary art sale in Hong Kong, and at a much higher value than estimated. The hammer price for Oil No. 19 was HK$1.6 million, compared with the pre-sale valuation of HK$700,000-900,000.

Southeast Asian artists' works have also sold well, and Sotheby’s auctioned over 90 per cent  of those offered for sale on October 4. One highlight was Filipino artist Ronald Ventura’s surreal Uproar, which sold for just over HK$7 million, around four times above the higher estimate of its valuation. The same trend was seen at Bonhams, where a world record was set for a work by Romualdo Locatelli, an Italian artist who lived in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Having said that, the results were a far cry from those a few years ago, when frenzied bidding spurred by quantitative easing on the part of central banks provided plenty of liquidity for all markets and evening sales were guaranteed to set a few new record prices for blue-chip artists.

This year a number of paintings by top names were left unsold at both Sotheby’s and Bonhams. Zeng Fanzhi’s 1996 Self-Portrait, estimated at HK$25 million to HK$35 million, and a number of Ju Ming sculptures owned by collector and gallerist Johnson Chang were among the items that failed to whet appetites at the Sotheby’s sale. Bonhams also failed to sell works by Cai Guoqing and Damien Hirst.

But one big name – albeit one rarely associated with the art world – did well. Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba, saw his Paradise sold for HK$42.2 million at Sotheby’s to Chinese businessman and philanthropist Qian Fenglei. The artwork was jointly painted by Ma and Zeng in aid of a conservation charity founded by Ma.