Step aside, Banksy: Asian art and toys are taking over world markets

KAWS’ ‘Companion (Black)’, 2007. Photo Credit: Poly Auctions

If one was to create a year-end collage of “top art auction highlights”, Banksy’s Girl with Balloon – whoops, Love is in the Bin – will perhaps top the list. Or will it be David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), sold for more than US$90 million? Closer to home, Zao Wou-Ki’s 33-foot-long Octobre 1985 smashed records at Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

Yet, away from the few headliners, there is a wealth of art trading between a few hundred thousands to a few million that could perhaps give a better indication of where the market is headed.

Three categories raked in strong numbers at the Hong Kong Autumn sales: street art, toys and southeast Asian art.

KAWS’ ‘Four Foot Dissected Companion' (Grey)’, 2009. Photo: Phillips

Four Foot Dissected Companion (Grey)Untitled Companion

KAWS’ rising popularity is emblematic of a larger acceptance of street art in the upper echelons of the art market.

Yayoi Kusama’s ‘End of Universe’, 2005. Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd

“If you look at Banksy or KAWS, they’re making art for the masses,” said Jonathan Crockett, head of 20th century and contemporary art, and deputy chairman, Asia, Phillips. “KAWS produces high-end collectible art, but he is also more flexible. Many more people can collect his work. These artists are also engaging with fashion brands, making them more inclusive.”

Another category popular at Phillips’ Hong Kong is toys, with Nara’s L’Angel est Tombée selling for HK$1.75 million, nearly double its high estimate.

What’s unique about the rising interest in street art and toys is that both originated in Asia. “As a collecting region, Asia has been collecting art longer than any part of the world, but the focus had been on traditional mediums such as Chinese works on paper and art,” Crockett notes. “This huge interest in Asia is stimulating interest around the world. We have seen this happening in the past few years.”

Perhaps it has to do with the influx of a large amount of Asia collectors, putting them in much better position to set market trends, or that there is less snobbery in Asia, particularly among collectors with new money, about street art and toys.

Yoshitomo Nara’s ‘The Little Pilgrim (Night Walking)’, 1999. Photo Credit: Christie's Images Ltd

It is a similar tale at Christie’s Hong Kong, where Nara was a strong component of the auction house’s day sale. The artist’s Upset Kitty went under the hammer for nearly HK$2.19 million, more than double its high estimate of HK$1 million.

Southeast Asian art continues to gain traction in the auction market.

“Southeast Asian art is a growing market,” said Jonathan Stone, co-chairman of Asian Art at Christie’s and deputy chairman, Asia. “It is gaining recognition not just from within [the countries], but in Asia and beyond.”

Indonesian Christina Ay Tjoe’s My Monologue 3 sold for HK$2 million at Christie’s autumn sale, punching well above the high estate of HK600,000. Known for her bold, feverish streaks, My Monologue 3 depicts two figures, one daubed in black and red, the other in white and shades of grey, in dialogue.

‘My Monologue 3’, 2008, by Christina Ay Tjoe. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd

Of the eight Mai Trung Thú offerings at Christie’s, only one fell short of its high estimate – though it still hit well above low estimate. Mere et Enfants (Mother and Children), in particular, sold for

HK$3.7 million, more than four times its high estimate. Meanwhile, Le Pho’s Summertime in the Garden raked in HK$1.25 million, more than three times its high estimate.

There is further diversification of the Asian art scene. “We see a variety of styles from different countries and regions, and this has attracted an intense amount of interest from collectors,” says Yu.

Bright spots include Richard Lin’s January 1967 , which sold for HK$7.67 million at Poly’s Hong Kong sale. Born in Taiwan and educated in the UK, Lin enjoyed early success, exhibiting at “documenta 3” in 1964. In 2010, Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts mounted a retrospective of his works; eight years later, in 2018, Bonhams followed with the artist’s first retrospective in Europe.

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The growing popularity of southeast Asian works, street art and toys among Hong Kong collectors has rippled across world markets and fashion brands