Guardian’s HK$455m (US$58.6m) Sale Shows Chinese Demand High For Quality Lots
This weekend, Hong Kong’s auction scene roared back to life with Sotheby’s autumn auction series and mainland Chinese auction house China Guardian’s first-ever sale in the city. Reflecting major trends that we’ve seen take hold in the Greater China auction market over the course of 2012, Sotheby’s saw strong demand for rare lots at wine, jewelry and art auctions, while — owing to more cautious and discriminating bidding and greater difficulty procuring top-quality items — less valuable pieces, even by blue-chip artists, went unsold this time around. Hard-to-get works by key players stole the show, however, with Zhang Xiaogang’s “Tiananmen No. 1” selling for US$2.7 million, over its low estimate of $1.9 million, Liu Wei’s “Revolutionary Family Series” selling for US$2.25 million, over a low estimate of $1.5 million, and Ding Yi’s “Appearance of Crosses 94-7” going for US$203,807, nearly three times its low estimate of $77,395.
China Guardian’s Hong Kong debut was overall more dramatic, however, with the Beijing-based house pulling in a grand total of HK$455 million (US$58.6 million) in sales at the Mandarin Oriental, more than double the pre-sale estimate of HK$185 million.
Packed with works by modern and traditional Chinese painters who have become auction favorites in Hong Kong and mainland China in recent years — among them Zhang Daqian, Qi Baishi, Li Keran, and Xu Beihong — China Guardian’s sale attracted quite a few local Hong Kong bidders. Yet, as Artinfo noted, the house was mostly packed with mainland Chinese collectors (100 of whom were flown in for the auction by China Guardian):
Hong Kong collectors were in the room, but the event was an overwhelmingly mainland Chinese affair: Guardian had flown in more than 20 of their top mainland buyers for the event, and proceedings were conducted in Mandarin Chinese rather than the English that is the norm in Hong Kong’s sales rooms. Why drag your best customers 1,200 miles to a sale that could have been held at home? The likely reason is that the move into Hong Kong is not so much about reaching a new market as about providing a more congenial venue for Guardian’s mainland clients, away from the complex sales taxes and growing scrutiny that characterize the mainland auction scene.
With a much more wide-ranging autumn auction series, Sotheby’s saw mixed results this weekend, with wine demand proving highly resilient as bidding for Asian contemporary and 20th century art was more selective. Over the two-day wine auction series, Sotheby’s sold 96 percent of lots, edging the pre-sale estimate of HK$73 million (US$9.4 million) with a total of HK$73.6 million ($9.5 million), excluding buyer’s premium. As expected, the 18-month-long love affair with top-tier Burgundy Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) has yet to fade, with the top wine lot at this weekend’s sales being a lot of nine bottles of 1990 DRC, which went for HK$1.7 million (US$219,290), or over US$24,000 per bottle.
Sotheby’s Contemporary Asian Art auction (previously on Jing Daily) met modest expectations with a grand total of HK$117 million (US$15 million), $1 million under its pre-sale estimate, yet important works by top artists met and often handily beat multi-million-dollar high estimates. Newer collectors also showed a strong interest in contemporary Chinese photography and prints, as well as emerging artists like Yin Kun, whose “Chinese Babies #11” went for US$24,186, almost four times its pre-sale estimate of $6,450. Landmark works of contemporary Chinese photography showed rising interest in the segment among recent entrants to the market, with Song Dong’s “Stamping the Water” beating high estimates at HK$620,000 (US$79,975) and Zhang Huan’s “Family Tree” hitting its high estimate at HK$800,000 (US$103,193).
Unlike at contemporary art auctions held in Hong Kong in 2011 and this past spring, important works of Chinese contemporary art remained in short supply, since regional collectors continue to hold onto their artwork rather than look to “flip” it at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. Though this weekend’s sale was stocked with several works by leading Chinese artists, new and more seasoned Chinese collectors alike showed impressive discrimination, bidding aggressively for important and scarce works while ignoring lesser pieces. As Artinfo noted:
The [contemporary art] decline is almost entirely due to the difficulty of securing high-quality consignments in a slowing market. While last season featured a number of iconic and hotly contested Chinese contemporary art works, yesterday’s sale included only one truly important work, Liu Wei’s “Revolutionary Family Series – Invitation to Dinner,” (1992), which sold for HK$17.46 million (US$2.24 million) against a high estimate of HK$15 million (US$1.9 million), an auction record for the artist. Exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1993, Liu’s work is a classic of the Cynical Realist art movement which emerged from the disillusionment following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Elsewhere in the sale solid results were recorded for works by Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi, and Fang Lijun. The top lot of the sale was Zhang’s “Tiananmen No 1,” 1993, which sold to a European collector for HK$20.82 million (US$2.669 million) comfortably within the pre-sale estimate of HK$15 – 25 million.
Looking ahead, Sotheby’s is hard at work preparing its first foray into mainland China with its recently announced partnership with Beijing Gehua Art Company. As Sotheby’s Asia CEO Kevin Ching said after this weekend’s auctions, fears of a significant slowdown in the Greater China auction market just reflect “bumps in the road,” adding that the new Sotheby’s (Beijing) Auction Co. plans to hold its first large-scale sales in mainland China next spring. Said Ching, the inaugural series should include wine, watches, jewelry and Western art.