The best of Hong Kong

[24 May 2013]


Friday is Top day! Every other Friday, Artprice publishes a theme-based auction ranking. This week: the top ten hammer prices in Hong Kong!

Although the auction houses in the traditional art capitals of New York and London continue to achieve the very highest sales prices, the unprecedented growth of Hong Kong has allowed it to take its place among the world’s top three art markets in the space of just a few short years. Thanks to its location right in the heart of Asia, its network of international investors and its favourable tax laws, Hong Kong remains the most attractive Asian centre for the art market. The most prestigious sales are still dominated by the two major multinationals, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which have been part of the landscape of this former British colony since the 1970s and 1980s. In light of their exceptional results, the Asian auction houses have been falling over themselves to gain a foothold in this lucrative market. Some of them moved in very quickly, such as Seoul Auction in 2008. However, it was not until the end of 2012 that the two main Chinese auction houses, China Guardian and Poly Auction, made their first sales on Hong Kong soil (October and November 2012).
If the “Pearl of the Orient” provides the ideal conditions for buying art in Asia, what have been its best results to date?
The Top 10 reveals few surprises: the domination of Chinese artists who make up 90% of the list; the dominance of Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which together account for 9 of the 10 places (5 for Sotheby’s and 4 for Christie’s); and the incredible vibrancy of the market in 2011 that has led to 4 places being filled, including the 3 that top the list.

TOP 10 hammer prices in Hong Kong
Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 ZHANG Daqian $21,845,000 « Lotus and Mandarin Ducks » (1947) 05/31/2011 (Sotheby’s HONG KONG)
2 CUI Ruzhuo $14,113,000 « Lotus » (2011) 11/29/2011 (Christie’s HONG KONG)
3 ZHANG Xiaogang $9,002,000 Forever Lasting Love () 04/03/2011 (Sotheby’s HONG KONG)
4 ZENG Fanzhi $8,589,400 Mask series 1996 No.6 (1996) 05/24/2008 (Christie’s HONG KONG)
5 CAI Guoqiang $8,487,600 Untitled (2002) 11/25/2007 (Christie’s HONG KONG)
6 ZHANG Daqian $8,481,000 « Children Playing under a Pomegranate Tree » (1948) 05/31/2011 (Sotheby’s HONG KONG)
7 XU Beihong $8,185,600 Put down your Whip (1939) 04/07/2007 (Sotheby’s HONG KONG)
8 FU Baoshi $7,985,600 The Song of the Pipa Player (1945) 11/30/2010 (Christie’s HONG KONG)
9 QI Baishi $7,985,600 Willows at the Riverside/Begonias (1922) 04/03/2012 (Sotheby’s HONG KONG)
10 Roy LICHTENSTEIN $7,979,400 Still Life with Stretcher, Mirror, Bowl of Fruit (1972) 10/07/2008 (Seoul Auction HONG KONG)

The dizzy heights of 2011
2011 made history in the global art market by confirming the domination of the Chinese. In 2011, for the second consecutive year, China took first place in the sales of art worldwide. The high-end market thus proved itself to be extraordinarily healthy and the Chinese market displayed exceptional growth with an increase of 49% over 2010.
So the top three results in our Top list, Lotus and Madarin Ducks by Zhang Daqian ($21.84 million), Lotus by Cui Ruzhuo ($14.11 million) and Forever Lasting Love ($9 million) by Zhang Xiaogang, all went under the hammer between April and November 2011.
2011 was also an unprecedented year for the sale of works by Zhang Daqian. With total sales of $554 million, Zhang Daqian stole first place from Pablo Picasso, whose ranking as the world’s top selling artist in terms of revenue had until then seemed unassailable. As the major winner in this Top 10, Zhang Daqian takes first place on the podium thanks to the record price achieved by his Lotus and Madarin Ducks, sold for $21.84 million on 31 May 2011 at Sotheby’s. He is also the only artist to feature twice in the Top 10 thanks to the $8.48 million achieved for Children Playing Under a Pomegranate Tree, which gives him 6th place in the ranking. These two record sales prices also have one other thing in common – they are both from the Mei Yun Tang collection, sold at Sotheby’s on 31 May 2011 and considered the best collection of works by Zhang Daqian.

Roy Lichtenstein, the sole exception
Collectors in Hong Kong – most of whom are Chinese – are above all interested in bidding for works by their compatriots. Such unabashed nationalism is becoming increasingly prevalent among Chinese millionaires, as is shown by the rest of the Top 10, with the 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th and 9th places being in Chinese hands, including three modern artists (Xu Beihong, Fu Baoshi and Qi Baishi) and two contemporary artists (Zeng Fanzhi and Cai Guoqiang). These records were essentially set in 2007 and 2008, while 2012 saw only one entry towards the bottom of the table ($7.98 million for Willows at the Riverside/Begonias by Qi Baishi in 9th place) – evidence of last year’s drop in Chinese sales revenues.
The only Western artist in the ranking, Roy Lichtenstein, clings on to 10th place with his work Still Life with Stretcher, Miror, Bowl of fruit. Initially sold for $7.14 million on 20 June 2007 at Christie’s London, the fortunate buyer was tempted by the boom in the Asian market, sending it to Seoul Auction for its inaugural Hong Kong sale the following year. Here, Still Life with Stretcher, Miror, Bowl of fruit sold for over $7.97 million on 7 October 2008, netting a profit of $830,000! However, its new owner proved less lucky when the work was once again put up for sale in 2011 but failed to reach its low estimate with a hammer price of $5.8 million (12 May 2011 at Phillips de Pury & Company New York).
Seoul Auction has been trying to sell contemporary Western art in Asia for some years, but these latter attempts have met with only varying degrees of success. The record price achieved for the Lichtenstein work remains an isolated case that is closely linked to the hype surrounding Seoul Auction’s first sale in Hong Kong. Buyers still look to New York and London for prestigious sales of Western art.

Despite the buzz and the massive potential of a city like Hong Kong, let’s not forget that a large proportion of Asian sales also take place in Beijing. Meanwhile, other cities are doing their best to compete with the “Pearl of the Orient”, even if they still lag well behind. Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei are producing larger sales volumes than some of the traditional markets such as Paris, Berlin, Milan and Geneva.