Rising popularity of Hong Kong artists among collectors on show at Sotheby’s sale

Growing interest in Hong Kong art may be reflected in higher prices at auction, artist hope

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 6:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 March, 2016, 3:43pm

A new selling exhibition at Sotheby’s Hong Kong gallery is unusual for two reasons. It is entirely devoted to local contemporary art. It is also a collaboration of the auction house, a major private collector, as well as a number of Hong Kong commercial galleries.

Since 2012, Sotheby’s Hong Kong has held numerous private sales in addition to its traditional auction business as a way to diversify revenue streams. But its Pacific Place gallery space has never featured a sale devoted to living, local artists, until now.

From February 26 to March 10, more than 50 works by more than a dozen names will be on show in a duo-exhibition: one part is a selection from collector William Lim’s well-known treasure trove of local art – those works are not for sale – and the other is a selling exhibition of more than 30 pieces gathered from various sources.

The lists of artists featured in the two sections are nearly identical, as Sotheby’s says it has used Lim’s exhibition to “frame” the sale. It has sought out artworks from individual sellers, artists and the galleries that represent them.

The relationship between auction houses and galleries used to be much clearer. The former would be limited to the secondary market while only the latter would deal directly with the artists. Today, that line is increasingly blurred as auction houses expand the scope of their businesses.

A number of artists featured in the exhibition say they don’t really care about the business model as long as their works sell.

Local artists have long been overshadowed by their mainland counterparts in the market. In 2013, Zeng Fanzhi’s The Last Supper was sold at auction for HK$180.4 million, setting a record for a contemporary Asian work of art. By comparison, Sotheby’s says the highest price ever fetched by a Hong Kong artwork in its auctions was about a 100th of that. That record is held by a scooter covered in graffiti by the late Tsang Tsou-choi, aka King of Kowloon, which was sold in 2013 for HK$1.84 million, Sotheby’s says.

As both Chinese and other Asian contemporary art prices have gone beyond the reach of most collectors, could the time have come for Hong Kong art to attract more international attention? A parallel can perhaps be drawn with recent efforts to promote art from Singapore – another city where its artists have a relatively low profile. Last November, Christie’s held a successful sale of Singapore art where more than 90 per cent of the lots on offer found buyers.

“We do see similarities between the market of Hong Kong and Singapore art, as the two cities resemble each other in terms of size and their distinctive identities. Artists from both cities have been gaining increasing recognition on the international art stage. I think in both cases, the growing number of major art events and the development of world-class art venues/museums play important roles in providing additional exposure for the artists to the global audience, which in turn drives interest and demand. Take M+, the museum’s active acquisitions of Hong Kong artists’ works in recent years have caught the attention of collectors worldwide,” says Wong.

The artists featured in the selling exhibition are: Tang Kwok-hin, Kong Chun-hei, Chi Hoi, Lui Chun-kwong, Yeung Tong-lung, Wilson Shieh, Au Hoi-lam, Chow Chun-fai, Ho Sin-tung, Lin Xue, Angela Su, Luke Ching, Trevor Yeung, Lee Kit and Lam Tung-pang.

Lam says Hong Kong’s unique politics provide an interesting backdrop to the art. Its one country, two systems model of governance creates conflicts and many unknowns, which provide much fodder for the arts. In recent years, he has seem demand for Hong Kong art grow as more people become more interested in the Hong Kong story, he adds.

But local artists do not expect prices to suddenly go up.

“I don’t think there are any particular events that would send prices for Hong Kong art drastically higher. M+ and Art Basel have raised international awareness but that has been a gradual process rather than a big leap,” says Su.