Sotheby's Proves Draw of Evening Sales in Asia

Record prices for market classics Zao Wou-Ki, Le Pho et al.
By A&M

Zao Wou-Ki, ‘Juin-Octobre 1985’, oil on canvas (triptych), 280 x 1000cm, 1985. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s Hong Kong Limited.

Zao Wou-Ki, ‘Juin-Octobre 1985’, oil on canvas (triptych), 280 x 1000cm, 1985. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s Hong Kong Limited.

The mega evening sale of modern and contemporary art in Asia has properly entered a new era this year with the highest combined sale total for any evening sale at USD200 million/ HKD1.56 billion registered at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 30 September 2018. The sale also saw a 100% sell-through rate for Western artists with the highest total for an offering of works sold at auction in Asia.

Turn back the clock 10 years ago: 4 October 2008. The inaugural evening sale of modern and contemporary Asian art at Sotheby’s achieved USD14.7 million/ HKD115 million, and offered only the works of Asian artists. 

This time, Sotheby’s anchored its sale around just one work, unsurprisingly, a Zao Wou-Ki. ‘Juin-Octobre 1985’, commissioned by the renowned architect I.M. Pei for the Raffles City complex in Singapore. Sotheby’s spoke of it in superlatives:

 “The painting is a singular accomplishment, a prodigious effort by the artist to express his ideas and essence at full capacity, with great artistic power and boldness. During his entire career, Zao Wou-Ki created no more than twenty large-scale triptychs. The offering of this singular masterpiece at Sotheby’s Evening Sale marks a grand achievement in East Asian auction history.”

Sold by Taiwanese Paul Chang who bought the work for USD2.3 million at Christie’s in 2005 (then sold by Raffles City), ‘Juin-Octobre 1985’ achieved a world auction record for a painting by an Asian artist, and is the most valuable painting sold by any auction house in Hong Kong. Sotheby's would not identify the buyer, who won the painting on the phone with Sebastian Fahey, Sotheby's managing director of business in Asia. 

The sale delivered affirmative results not just on market classics like the Zao, but also historically undervalued artists such as Li Chun Shan, the pioneering modern Taiwanese artist — seven works sold, with a USD720,000 record price and six of seven works sold above high estimate. Other post-war modernists with Taiwanese roots like Hsiao Chin, Richard Lin and Li Yuan-Chia did well. 

For modern Asian art, authenticity and provenance is of especial concern. Where pieces have been verified, published and exhibited like the group of Guan Liangs, the results shows, with a record price established by an international auction house at USD1.27 million/ HKD9.9 million for ‘Monk Tang and Wu Kong’. Where a work was too obscure, and bore little supporting historical context, it could only tank as what happened to the Modern Art cover lot, ‘White Moon’ by Taiwanese self-taught artist Hong Tong.

Yoshitomo Nara, ‘Ready to Scout’, 2001, acrylic on cotton mounted on FRP, 177.8 (diameter) x 25.4 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s HK.

Yoshitomo Nara, ‘Ready to Scout’, 2001, acrylic on cotton mounted on FRP, 177.8 (diameter) x 25.4 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s HK.

In the contemporary sector, the sale was buoyed by the triumvirate: Kaws, Yoshitomo Nara and Yayoi Kusama. Sam Francis had a flattering session, with all nine of his easy-on-the-eye type abstraction works soaring above high estimate. In today’s context, as opposed to 10 years ago, one would think that speculative bidding around emerging contemporary art would be tempered but this is not true for the Philippine contemporary where bidders enthusiastically (and vacuously) chased the works of Brian Uhing and Andres Barrioquinto amongst others. 

The buoyancy of the present market for Vietnamese art started with the large Le Pho work, ‘Femme et Enfants dans un Paysage’, and then continued with two other smaller pieces. All three Wally Findlay works sold well and reveals how Vietnamese modern artists are closing the price gap with their Southeast Asian counterparts.