Auctioneer Christie’s raised 13 per cent less from its spring sales in Hong Kong this year than in 2015, with sales of Chinese works of art particularly disappointing. A special 30th anniversary auction featuring some heavily promoted lots was not enough to offset lower sales on other days. Total sales for the week were HK$2.8 billion, including commission.
Christie’s performance stands in contrast to the improved year-on-year spring sales enjoyed by rival auctioneers Sotheby’s and Poly Auction in April.
Only 59 per cent of lots in Christie’s “Classical Chinese Art from Sui to Song Dynasties” auction on June 1 were sold. Unusually, that sale did better on that measure than the “Imperial Sale” on the same day, which had a paltry sell-through rate of 49 per cent.
According to Tsang Chi-fan, specialist head of Christie’s department of Chinese ceramics and works of art, buyers in Hong Kong have traditionally preferred Ming- and Qing-dynasty Imperial wares to older items in less pristine condition, so this may suggest that market is evolving.
Elsewhere, average sell-through rates by lots were in the seventies, not quite the 85 per cent mark that Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkanen said should be the benchmark of a successful sale.
Wine was a bright spot for the auction house, with 95 per cent of bottles sold.
The marquee event of Christie’s spring sales week was the May 30 auction, “30: The sale”, marking the auction house’s 30 years in Hong Kong. It was a “white glove” sale, with all the lots offered finding buyers.
A Hermes matte white crocodile skin Birkin bag encrusted with diamonds sold for HK$2.33 million, including commission, making it the world’s most expensive handbag. It seems Birkin bags are no less popular for actress Jane Birkin’s disowning of them out of concern for crocodiles’ welfare.
The top lot in the sale was a large, blue and white “dragon” jar from the Ming Xuande period that sold for HK$140 million, excluding fees, after heavy bidding which started at HK$22 million. Its pre-sale estimate was HK$60 million to HK$80 million. Other lots that were heavily promoted also did well. Summer on California Mountain, Chinese artist Zhang Daqian’s painting of the Half Dome in California’s Yosemite National Park from 1967, sold for HK$34 million, against an estimate of HK$18-HK$28 million.
There were two particularly interesting moments.
One came before the sale. Outlaws of the Marsh, a collection of 110 scrolls said to be by Chinese artist Huang Yongyu, was withdrawn because Huang said they were fakes. It was unfortunate for a high-profile event attended by Christie’s chief executive officer, Patricia Barbizet, and conducted by Pylkkanen. The Christie’s global president shrugged it off. “Every sale we have, we have withdrawn lots,” he said.
The other came during the sale of an oil painting by Adrien-Jean le Mayeur de Merpres, the Belgian artist who was the Gauguin of Bali. His Women Around the Lotus Pond, which features semi-naked women making merry in a tropical setting, last sold for HK$17.1 million including fees in 2007. This time, Pylkkanen opened the bidding at HK$15 million.
The first offer, by phone, was HK$21 million. That drew a gasp across the packed hall and caused other interested parties to regroup. It finally went to Alexander Tedja, the Indonesian property developer and avid art buyer, who made the final bid of HK$26 million.
During a period of correction in the art market – and we are still in one, given China’s slowing economic growth and the instability of the financial markets – many people expect contemporary Asian art to suffer because of the absence of the sort of speculative demand that drove up prices immediately after the global financial crisis. But Asian contemporary art sales appeared to be holding up, especially where the works were of solid provenance.
Hong Kong gallerist and collector Johnson Chang Tsong-zung put 30 pieces of Chinese contemporary art up for sale with Christie’s and most found buyers, including Zeng Fanzhi’s Meat No. 3 (Nativity), which sold for HK$30.4 million, including fees. Among the few lots left unsold was a painting by Liu Dahong, who has a solo exhibition at Chang’s gallery this month.
Pylkkanen doesn’t expect auction volumes to go any lower.
“Sellers look at oil price and the financial markets. These have stabilised so we expect November volumes to be up as more people put things on the market. There is no shortage of cash among buyers,” he said.
“Since 2014 there has been a huge buying appetite in Asia and Asian buyers buy across multiple categories. We are about to open a new gallery in Beijing and we are going to bring over masterpieces from November and December sales in New York and London."
The Hong Kong auctions scene is certainly not getting any less crowded. Sotheby’s, Bonhams, China Guardian, Tiancheng, Ravenal, Tokyo Chuo and K Auction all had sales this past week.
One new addition was a joint sale of Chinese works of art by Freeman’s and Lyon & Turnbull’s. The former is America’s oldest auctioneers and the other Scotland’s oldest. Their top lot was a Ming Xuande “stem” cup that sold for HK$36 million including commission.