Hong Kong opens up to Western Contemporary art



Sotheby’s is pleased with its Hong Kong sales, especially after the latest (June 11, 2015) entitled Boundless: Contemporary Art, which saw nearly 60% of the lots fetch above their high estimates. The total turnover of MK$ 41.5m (US$ 5.3m) was substantially better than expectations and a hotly disputed Keith Haring (Untitled, 1983) quadrupled the estimates fetching equivalent to $536,000 including fees.

A significant result…

A new auction record for Keith HARING in Hong Kong is an achievement that reflects the ongoing opening of the Asian market to major Western signatures. The $536,000 result is not only a success for Keith Haring’s art, it is also the fruit of several years of work by Sotheby’s (and Christie’s) in Hong Kong to nuture the interest for Western art among Chinese, Taiwanese and Southeast Asian collectors.
In the West, Keith Haring has an iconic status. Our global ranking of artists by annual auction turnover places him among the top 100 and thirteen of his works have fetched over a million dollars at auctions since 2007. Sotheby’s started trying to sell his work though their Hong Kong branch in January 2014. At the time, nobody was interested in the two works offered in a range of $100,000 to $200,000. Either the market was not ready, or the buyers were too timid. A few months later East-West Auction tried a different strategy by offering small works for less than $5,000 (hence minimal risk for buyers). They found buyers, but it took another year for Haring’s Eastern market to emerge. On June 11, Sotheby’s actually sold two works by Keith Haring! So the sale of Western Contemporary art in the East at last appears to be bearing fruit, opening a new way for Western auctioneers to benefit from Asian purchasing power.

More international sales

Sotheby’s Boundless: Contemporary Art sale aimed to encompass a number of key figures of Chinese, Japanese and Western Contemporary art. The result was a catalog containing works by Chu Teh-Chun, Zao Wou-Ki, Yayoi Kusama, Yoshitomo Nara, Daido Moriyuama, Takashi Murakami alongside works by Lucio Fontana, Vik Muniz, David Lachapelle, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and even Space invader! The top three results of the sale belonged to, Keith Haring ($536,000), the Franco-Chinese artist, ZAO Wou-Ki ($505,000 incl. fees for 14.1.69) and the American, Andy WARHOL ($366,000 for the double portrait of Sofu Teshigahara). This winning trio sends a particularly positive signal, a signal that was also confirmed elsewhere in the sale. For example… the first-ever Lucio FONTANA work to be offered in Hong Kong (a small Concetto Spaziale from an edition of approximately 500) fetched double its high estimate (hammered at $177,000 including fees).

That said, on the whole, Western artists still have a lot of catching up to do on the Eastern secondary market. They are usually cheaper in Hong Kong than in London and New York where demand is in full swing. For example, Jeff KOONS’ multiple Balloon Venus Dom Pérignon, edited in 650 copies, sold for $51,600 at Sotheby’s HK whereas another identical copy from the same series fetched twice that sum on the same day in London ($105,859 at Phillips). The works by Marc QUINN and David LACHAPELLE found buyers at the Sotheby’s sale, but at their low estimates (Quinn’s The Architecture of Nature fetched $161,250 incl. fees and Lachapelle’s A taste of power went for $22,575 incl. fees). The Brazilian artist Vik MUNIZ received a lukewarm reception (one work sold under its low estimate, another remained unsold) and there were unsold works by artists as well-known as Richard Prince and the Christo & Jeanne-Claude couple. So, not everything sells. Even high media profiles artists like the American neo-pop artist KAWS (chosen by the French gallery-owner Emmanuel Perrotin in 2012 to inaugurate his Hong Kong space) struggled: out of five KAWS works in the catalog, three were bought in.

Overall, the Boundless: Contemporary Art sale produced a mix of remarkable successes and unsold works. But, it nevertheless marks a turning point for the stature of Western artists in Hong Kong, without going overboard or manifesting any speculative excesses. Moreover, Hong Kong today stands out as the primary Asian marketplace working towards a genuine globalization of demand.

All the artists listed in this article: