ARTcurial, the French auction house, cast its net wide for its inaugural Hong Kong sale last year, reaching beyond the traditional categories to gauge the scope of local demand. Its two-day sale with local partner Spink had items familiar to Asia – contemporary works by Wang Guangyi and Yan Pei-ming, a Hermès Birkin bag – and those that are not: cartoons, 19th-century objets d’art, 20th-century design pieces and even a 1961 Mercedes-Benz roadster.
Diversity has served the 15-year-old auction house well at home, where it is no minnow. Artcurial is part of France’s Dassault Group, a privately held conglomerate with more than 18,000 employees and about €9 billion (HK$78 billion) in annual revenue that is best known for making fighter jets. The auctions subsidiary, still very young by industry standards, is housed in the elegant neoclassical Hôtel Marcel Dassault, smack in the heart of Paris. In the first half of 2016, Artcurial overtook Christie’s and Sotheby’s to claim the biggest share of the French auction market.
“They are very cross with us. Having seen the first-half results, they are like, oh my God, we have to strengthen our Paris operations,” says Isabelle Bresset, the Artcurial director leading the charge into Asia.
London remains the European capital of the art market – even though Brexit is likely to have an impact – but Paris, because of the presence of many old family collections, is not a market that auction houses treat lightly, according to Bresset.
“Christie’s and Sotheby’s want to be number one everywhere and they won’t leave us alone,” she says. “It is like fighting with lions. It is very tough.”
But in Hong Kong, its first international outpost, Artcurial has decided to take the path of least resistance. Its second annual Hong Kong sale, to be held on October 3 at the Liang Yi Museum in Central, is scaled down from last year’s, focusing only on cartoons and street art, two categories the big houses don’t pay much attention to. This year’s sale will also only last for a day.
Bresset says the smaller sale reflects vendors’ preferences and her small team’s inability to get more categories ready in time. She remains optimistic about Asia’s growth prospects.
We are seeing more and more Asian clients in Paris,” she says. “Their presence has been doubling each year since our first Asian art auction in 2011.”
In fact, the Asian art market has proven fairly resilient to a global downturn in auctions volume and China’s economic slowdown. Sotheby’s last month said its total revenue fell 16.9 per cent in the first half of this year compared with 2015, but its Hong Kong sales grew 22 per cent in that period. Meanwhile, auction house Phillips is beefing up its Hong Kong team and the number of local sales.
But France’s biggest auction house is wary of the cost of doing business in Hong Kong.
“Rent is so expensive here. We are not planning to open an office at the moment,” Bresset says.
There are practical considerations, too, and Artcurial will not repeat last year’s exercise of bringing a classic car to Hong Kong.
“The first registration tax here for an imported car is over 100 per cent. Also, there are very specific requirements on engine compliance with emission and noise standards. So I think the market is quite difficult to build in Hong Kong. There’s also the issue of space. Last year, we had to smash a window to get the Mercedes-Benz into the preview room,” Bresset says.
She admits it would be difficult to compete head on with Christie’s and Sotheby’s in categories they dominate in Hong Kong. Last year, Artcurial sold 74 per cent of all the pieces that it brought here – a respectable number but not one that auctioneers get excited about. The one category that sold like hot cakes was cartoons. Out of 37 lots, 36 found buyers, including an Asian collector who paid US$1.24 million, including fees, for Le Lotus Bleu (The Blue Lotus) from Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin.
One of the star lots this year is a 1979 drawing by Hergé featuring a full line-up of the main characters in Tintin. The preparatory drawing for a fresco at the Centre Cultural Wallonie-Bruxelles in Paris is estimated at HK$7 million to HK$10 million. The sale will also feature works by Enki Bilal, who saw his auction record broken last year in Hong Kong.
Bresset sees a lot of potential in the market for street art, as more galleries offer such pieces in Hong Kong and international stars the likes of Invader make their mark on local streets. The October sale will include Banksy’s Barcode Leopard (2004) and Invader’s SK8#2 (2001).
Hong Kong will remain Artcurial’s main international platform, Bresset says.
“Hong Kong is very international, and Asian clients are very dynamic. That’s why we picked Hong Kong over New York,” she says. “But it mustn’t rest on its laurels. Some day, mainland China will open up. Singapore has also matured as an arts hub. Hong Kong needs to offer more than just low tax and great logistics. It can’t just be a good place for business. It needs great museums and a great local art scene to sustain the art market.” ■