Art of the sale: Christie’s shuffles lots, adds strings for Hong Kong auctions

Amid fears of art market slowdown, auctioneers to hold first dedicated sale of Buddhist art, and first Asian private sale of rare musical instruments

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 November, 2015, 5:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 2015, 5:32am

News from the art auction market has been gloomy of late, prompting auction houses to look at new ways of presenting lots for sale.

On Monday, Sotheby’s third-quarter results showed it was losing less money than a year ago but revenue from its core auction business was still shrinking. Its share price has dropped 18 per cent since.

Over at arch-rival Christies, news that Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian paid US$170.4 million for Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couché failed to dispel fears of a slowdown. The Monday evening sale in New York saw record prices fetched for the Modigliani and works by other artists such as Roy Lichtenstein. But the sell-through rate was a paltry 71 per cent.

Meanwhile, niche players like South Korean auction houses are still doing well. And there’s still plenty of money out there, judging by Liu’s aggressive bidding for the Modigliani and Joseph Lau Luen-hung’s purchases of some really big diamonds.

I have been surprised to find a huge interest in Himalayan Buddhist art in particular
Tsang Chi-fan, Christie’s

So it pays to take a long, hard look at market demand and restructure sales accordingly.

Christie’s will hold its annual Hong Kong autumn sales from November 27 to December 2 and it is trying out some new strategies. There’s the Singaporean art sale pegged to the 50th anniversary of the founding of the island state and the November 24 opening of the National Gallery Singapore.

It is also putting on its first dedicated sale of Buddhist art, as well as the first private sale of antique musical instruments in Asia.

“They are both new and innovative categories to meeting the expectations of what our clients are looking for,” says Jonathan Stone, chairman and head of Asian art at Christie’s.

The “Art of Music”, which has been shown in Shanghai and will come to Hong Kong from November 26-29, is a selling exhibition of seven violins and one cello made by Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Bartolomeo Guarneri from the 1670s to the 1730s.

“Given the huge interest in classical music in China, it is an opportunity for people to acquire them and loan them to some of the young instrumentalists in China,” Stone says. The exhibition was shown in Shanghai from October 14-24 and Christie’s received a number of inquiries, mostly from people who had no history of investing in musical instruments. None has been sold yet but discussions continue.

The “Transcendence of Buddha” sale is a feature of the upcoming week of auctions, and it stands out because of its cross-category nature, Stone says. “Sourcing was done by different departments.

We try and see things the way collectors look at things, rather than from the silos of Chinese art or Japanese art. This kind of thematic [sale is] very much the strategy we are evolving.”

Tsang Chi-fan, head of the Chinese ceramics and works of art department, says there have been many serious Buddhist art collectors in Taiwan since the 1980s but she has been surprised by the strong interest in China. “Buddhism has long been ingrained in Chinese culture but over the last three to five years, there has been a new discovery of Buddhism and related artwork. I have been surprised to find a huge interest in Himalayan Buddhist art in particular,” she says.

Collectors are not necessarily Buddhists themselves, but appreciate the artefacts as works of art, she adds. Liu, who has just bought the Modigliani, is among China’s biggest buyers of Buddhist art. He paid HK$348.4 million for a Tibetan thangka last year.

Most of the pieces that will feature in the December 2 sale have been sourced from North America. “A great deal were exported to the West in the 19th century and they were fashionable then,” Tsang says.