9 Lessons About the Chinese Art Market From the Sotheby's Hong Kong Fall Sales
Source:Artinfo Author:Madeleine O'Dea Date: 2011-10-09 Size:
Sotheby's fall season in Hong Kong closed yesterday having taken HK$3.2 billion ($411 million) over six days, selling everything from Ming vases to a dead diva's jewelery. This was the second-best season ever for the house in Hong Kong (first prize going to this year's ebullient spring season)


Indonesian modern master Hendra Gunawan’s “Sweet Wine” (1979) sold for four times its high estimate at Sotheby's Hong Kong, fetching HK$1.8 million ($925,461).

 Sotheby's fall season in Hong Kong closed yesterday having taken HK$3.2 billion ($411 million) over six days, selling everything from Ming vases to a dead diva's jewelery. This was the second-best season ever for the house in Hong Kong (first prize going to this year's ebullient spring season) and — despite the shadow cast by the global market turmoil and the continuing credit crunch in China, which kept much of the speculative money away — Sotheby's tally still comfortably exceeded their pre-season estimate of HK$2.7 billion ($346 million). Behind the headlines, however, the picture was more nuanced. In everything from jewelery to porcelain to Chinese contemporary art, the exceptional did well while the common had few admirers. At the same time the absence of "hot money" suggested that many of the market sectors are maturing. True collectors and long-term investors alike could take heart from this week in Hong Kong.

ARTINFO China brings you nine takeaways from this season.


Indonesian artist I Nyoman Masriadi’s “Are you sure?” (2010) was hammered down dead on the high estimate taking HK$2.180 million ($279,487) against a high estimate of HK$1.8 million at Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary Asian Paintings sale on Monday October 3 in Hong Kong.

 1. HONG KONG (AND CHINA) EXIST IN THE REAL WORLD, WHERE THE ECONOMY AFFECTS THE MARKET
This should be obvious, but it seems news to some. That weeks of turmoil on the world's financial markets, together with a months-old credit crunch in China and tumbles on Hong Kong's Hang Seng stock index, would not have an effect at Sotheby's sales would have been remarkable. The fact that a quarter of the contemporary Asian lots were bought in does not mean that the region is abandoning contemporary art. It means that the market is smart enough to be able to spot value and shun risk in a difficult season. Too many reporters still see China and Hong Kong as exceptions to the iron rules that bind the rest of us, as if the markets there can defy gravity. Either that or they portray the Chinese markets as barometers of social or political trends with which they have little connection.

2. WHILE SPECULATORS RETREATED, GENUINE COLLECTORS AND INVESTORS REMAINED
While speculators retreated, genuine collectors and investors remained. This was most evident in the sales of Chinese and Asian contemporary art on Monday and of Chinese porcelain and works of art on Wednesday. In both these sectors a high-profile sale of an exceptional collection (the Ullens Collection of Chinese contemporary art and the Meiyintang Collection in the case of Chinese porcelain) lived up to expectations, only to be followed by a general sale in the sector that was a comparative flop. In the absence of "hot money," the established collectors and investors led a flight to quality, whether that be in the form of a flawless Ming vase or an iconic work by one of China's most established artists — Zhang Xiaogang's "Bloodline: Big Family No.1" (1994) — or a piece of acknowledged historical and artistic value like Yu Youhan's early abstract "1990-5," or a rare imperial bronze bell from the Chenghua period. In all these cases the pieces were strongly contested, leading to prices that met even their rather aggressive pre-sale estimates.


Filipino artist Roland Ventura’s “Battle Field” (2010) quadrupled its high estimate
when it sold for a total HK$2.06 million ($264,103).

 3. UNDERBIDDERS PROVED NOT TO BE UNDERDOGS, AND REVEALED AN INTERNATIONAL MARKET
The resurgence of established collectors in the salesrooms also led to a more equal contest this season, with mainland Chinese collectors lacking the overwhelming dominance of the previous few years. This was seen most starkly at the contemporary sales, where Western collectors who were relegated to underbidder status in recent auctions — and even at the marquee Ullens sale on Sunday night — fought back in the contemporary Asian sale the next day to take a full half of the top lots. This trend was also seen in the Chinese porcelain and works of art sales where long-standing collectors from Europe, Taiwan, and Hong Kong itself battled on equal ground with the newer serious mainland Chinese collectors to take home some of the most prized lots including, reportedly, the record-breaking Ming vase.

4. CHASING CHINA'S NEW COLLECTORS CAN LEAVE YOU HIGH AND DRY   
As both contemporary Asian specialist Evelyn Lin and Chinese porcelain and works of art specialist Nicolas Chow discovered this season, betting on the presence of the free-spending new Chinese collectors can lead you astray. Chow ruefully observed this week that if he had known the cashed-up newcomers of recent sales were staying home he would have designed a more classic sale, while Lin set some aggressive estimates that may have deterred more established collectors.


Wu Guanzhong’s undated painting “Wu Gorge” sold for twice its high estimate at HK$17.46 million ($2.238 million).

 5. BLUE-CHIP CONTEMPORARY CHINESE STARS WERE CONFIRMED
A less fevered season also gave a clear picture of which Chinese contemporary artists are now viewed as blue-chip by the most discerning collectors, Chinese or otherwise. The list proved to be led, unsurprisingly, by artists long admired by the market like Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhe, Zhou Chunya, and Liu Ye, but also can now be taken to include less prominent figures like sometime "cynical realist" Liu Wei and abstract exponent Yu Youhan, who have been practising artists for going on 20 years.

6. THE FLIGHT TO VALUE DID NOT, HOWEVER, EQUAL A REJECTION OF EMERGING TALENT
The more informed market did not mean that only the most established artists were endorsed. In the contemporary Asian art sale there was solid competition for emerging talents, with works by young painters Chen Ke, Li Qing, and Qiu Xiaofei all selling above their high estimates.


Xu Beihong’s “Buffaloes” (1936) sold for HK$18.02 million ($2.31 million),  to a Southeast Asian private collector at the Fine Chinese Paintings sale on Tuesday October 4.

 7. IF YOU GREW BORED BY THE PACE, YOU COULD ALWAYS GO TO THE SOUTHEAST ASIAN SALES
Visitors to Hong Kong this auction season who think back on the boom days of the Chinese contemporary market could enjoy a nostalgic thrill at the Southeast Asian modern and contemporary sales. Here fierce competition drove works by both modern masters like Hendra Gunawan and S. Sudjojono and contemporary stars like Ronald Ventura to multiples of their high estimates, while at the same time crowning a new crop of emerging talents like Christine Ay Tjoe, C.J. Tanedo, and Ventura's brother, Rolando Ventura. Overall the sale took more than double its pre-sale estimate, clocking HK$33 million ($4.2 million), the second-highest total for the sector at Sotheby's Hong Kong. (The highest was this spring).

8. BUT THE HEART OF THE MARKET WAS FINE CHINESE PAINTING
As we have observed previously, traditional painting holds the strongest sway over the imagination of Chinese art connoisseurs, not just on the mainland but around the world. The market for this kind of painting — painted in the modern period but using traditional Chinese techniques — was actually born in Hong Kong, and is booming as more and more mainland collectors enter the market. No other sale during the week came close to inspiring the passion on display here, where almost every one of the 360 lots triggered dog fights that turned the sale into a marathon stretching over more than 12 hours, wearing out several auctioneers. Bids flew so thickly that the house was forced to stack them in holding patterns, like arriving aircraft. At the end of the night, almost 96 percent of the lots had been sold (for more than 99 percent of the value) catapulting the sale to HK$738 million ($94.7 million) — blitzing the pre-sale low estimate of HK$200 million ($25.6 million) to set a new record for this sector at Sotheby's Hong Kong. On these results it looks like the West will have to get used to seeing unfamiliar names like Zhang Daqian, Qi Baishi, and Xu Beihong taking up the top spots on lists of the leading artists at auction worldwide.

9. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
For those market watchers baffled by the taste for traditional Chinese painting, the continuing passion for diamonds proved reassuring. Despite its jewelery sales generally following the rather depressed trend with some 20 percent of the lots unsold, Sotheby's managed to achieve new per-carat records for rare orange and blue diamonds. The sale also reminded us that if you combine bling and celebrity you can do even better. The special sale of the collection of the late Hong Kong canto pop diva Anita Mui — headlined by a diamond and pearl necklace and earring set she had made for a wedding that never took place, but that she wore instead to the last concert before her untimely death at the age of 40 — doubled its pre-sale estimate to take a total of HK$6.81 million ($873,237), with every single one of the lots sold.

[Editor] Lola Xu

    Artintern