Has Liu Yiqian got his $36m. back?

It seemed like the sale of the century when Shanghai taxi driver turned billionaire, 52 year-old Liu Yiqian, spent over US$36million on a tiny 500 year-old chicken cup at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong in July 2014. Those who thought he was mad, felt their fears confirmed when he paid for it ( with 24 separate swipes of his Amex card) and promptly sat down and drank tea from it.wpid-liu-drinks-from-chicken-cup-lr.jpg.jpeg

It seemed like an awful lot of money: he beat London art dealer Eskenazi to the post. But in Shanghai three weeks ago, we picked up word on the street that he has made all the $36m. back already. Apparently, he licensed reproduction of the chicken bowl and more than 100,000 have been produced in Jingdezhen, the porcelain city. They sell at around $50-60 a piece, complete with elegant box and are, indeed, selling like hotcakes! There is also a rather more expensive replica at around $1,000. He presented one of the replicas to the UK’s Prince William on his visit to Shanghai recently.

The production quality is really quite good and it has caught on with Chinese who can’t quite afford the real thing but would like to grace their coffee table with something associated with great wealth. There is also a rather more expensive reproduction for the better heeled.



Two views of the reproduction chicken bowl, above


Contemporary Chinese art market trends show through in Sotheby’s April sales


Sotheby’s Contemporary Asian Art Sale on 6 April 2014 featured 230 lots, drawn from Chinese and Japanese artists, and presented work in a wider range of media compared to previous years’: painting, ink, sculpture and photography. This represented a gamble on Sotheby’s part, which, for the main part, resulted in success, but also in some failures. It is possible to draw some conclusions on the trends among collectors of contemporary Chinese art.

Some lots more than doubled their estimates, including a surprisingly high price for Wang Jianwei, and the top sale of the auction for Zhang Enli. But these successes were mixed in with unsold results from Liu Wei and Fang Lijun. However, Chinese contemporary photographers from the Ullens Collection proved popular with young collectors.

The sale achieved a total of USD15,441,827 (HKD120,446,250). This total, which includes the buyer’s premium and all fees, comes in under the previous year’s Contemporary Asian sale, which totalled USD24.9 million (HKD194.5 million), calculated on the same basis.

Zhang Enli, 'Dancing No. 2', 2000, oil on canvas, 215.2 x 147.4 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Zhang Enli, Dancing No. 2, 2000, oil on canvas, 215.2 x 147.4 cm.                               Just under $1m. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s

The Results: top 10 estimated lots

Sotheby's 2014 top ten

The first half of the sale was a persistent struggle between in-room and on-the-phone bids, as pieces from established Chinese artists were auctioned. The highlights were Zhang Enli’s Dancing N°2 (2000) which sold for USD856,228 (HKD6,640,000), buyer’s premium included, close to doubling its estimate and taking the top price of the day. The work, an oil on canvas showing a raucous dance floor from a bird’s eye perspective, is typical of much of Enli’s work. The artist tends to deal with everyday scenes of human life in China, steering away from overt political or pop-cultural posturing.

Zeng Fanzhi’s Landscape (2005) came in second, with a hammer price of USD 701,488 (HKD5,440,000), within its estimate. In third position, Zhang Peili’s X? Series (1987) went under the hammer for USD546,748 (HKD4,240,000), doubling its estimate.

The surprise of the auction came from Wang Jianwei’s Hollow Bricks (1990), which sold for USD345,586 (HKD2,680,000), fetching over HKD2 million more than its estimate. The sale followed a stand-off between an in-room collector who fought against a bidder on the phone. The auctioneer described this moment as “slow and fierce” and applause broke out after the hammer fell.

However, a minority of Chinese artists with high estimate prices did not perform as well as hoped, with many pieces from the same artist unsold. Liu Wei sold only five out of nine lots, the four unsold pieces being two oil paintings, one charcoal and gouache on paper, and one oil on paper. Fang Lijun also came in under expectations, with several oils on paper failing to sell and others fetching under estimate. Both artists sold well in the same sale in 2013, when they were auctioned as part of the Hirsch collection; this year’s results could indicate a recent change in buying tastes.

The contemporary ink section of the auction garnered much attention and active bidding, with all the artworks selling above their price estimates and serving to confirm the current popularity of the genre. Artists Gu Wenda and Qiu Zhijie were once again successful, both doubling their estimates. Zhang Jian’s Landscape Palm (1999), almost tripled its estimate to reach USD77,370 (HKD600,000).

However, Tsang Tsou-Choi (aka The King of Kowloon) stole the spotlight with King’s Maps (Two works (2001-2004), which exceeded its estimate of HKD60,000-80,000, selling for USD72,534 (HKD562,500).

Chinese contemporary photography from the Ullens Collection was greeted with enthusiasm from bidders over the phone, in the room and online, clearly tempted by initially low estimates on most works.

Yang Fudong‘s The First Intellectual (2000), the first lot to be exposed in this section, sold for USD190,846 (HKD1,480,000), well exceeding its estimate by more than HKD1,000,000. Beijing-based artist Wang Qingsong’s work Follow Me sold for the same price, almost triple its estimate.

The strong regional demand for Chinese contemporary art was demonstrated by the large number of East Asian collectors attending the five-day sales. This group were the main lot purchasers during the evening and day auctions held on 5 and 6 April. Bloomberg states that out of the top ten lots, nine were purchased by Asians during the evening sale on 5 April. Clearly, poor economic indicators have not affected the top end of the market at all with the poorest results showing through on rather cheaper works.

The Modern and Contemporary Asian Art evening auction on 5 April brought home some big sales, with Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family N°3 (1995) selling at USD12,147,090 (HKD94,2 million). Please see our previous report on this sale.


Zhang Xiaogang world record $12.1m. at Sotheby’s in HK

The record-breaking sale of Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 at Sotheby's Hong Kong on April 5. (Sotheby's)

The record-breaking sale of Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on April 5. (Photo courtesy Sotheby’s)

This week in Hong Kong there has been no sign of the ardour for top Chinese contemporary artists cooling. It is clear that the most popular and well recognised artists will continue to see escalating prices, as we predicted last week. Sotheby’s are particularly pleased  with the record-setting sale of a piece by Zhang Xiaogang and many other high end of estimate prices.

After active competition from five bidders, Zhang’s Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 sold for US$12.1 million at the Sotheby’s Hong Kong Modern And Contemporary Asian Art Evening Sale on April 5, surpassing its high estimate of $10.3 million. This amount is significantly higher than the artist’s previous record, which was set in 2011 with the sale of Forever Lasting Love (Triptych) for $10.1 million. Inspired by family photos from the Cultural Revolution and European surrealism, the painting was one of the artist’s rarer, early works, and had established a previous world record for Zhang when it was auctioned in 2008 for about half its current value.

Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 is estimated to sell for US$ to $10.3 million at Sotheby's in Hong Kong on April 5. The work is considered to be one of Zhang's more politically charged pieces, making it especially rare. (Sotheby's)

The painting by Zhang Xiagang is regarded as highly charged politically which is partly responsible for the record price (Photo courtesy Sotheby’s)

A major factor in the uplift in prices of Chinese contemporary works is attributable to the rising presence of Chinese collectors in the market. With growing incomes and a pragmatic, investment-minded approach to buying, Chinese bidders are more active every season as their numbers swell. “While bidding on the selection of highly desirable works was truly global, Asian collectors walked away with most of the top pieces,” said a Sotheby’s representative. The rising presence of wealthy Chinese collectors at global auctions may well help Chinese auction prices to catch up on those of Western prices in the coming years.

Zeng Fanzhi's This Land So Rich In Beauty No. 6 (Diptych) surpassed its high estimate with a sale of $2.8 million at Sotheby's Hong Kong evening sale. (Sotheby's)

Zeng Fanzhi’s This Land So Rich In Beauty No. 6 (Diptych) surpassed its high estimate with a sale of $2.8 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong evening sale. (Sotheby’s)

Chinese contemporary art dominated the top 10 lots of the sale, with many pieces surpassing their high estimates. Two pieces by Zeng Fanzhi, the artist with the current world record for the most expensive piece of Chinese contemporary art, topped their high estimates—his This Land So Rich In Beauty No. 6 (Diptych) and Mask Series No. 5 both sold for $2.8 million. Chinese-French painters were highly prominent at the sale: Sanyu’s Potted Chrysanthemums sold for $10.3 million, while three of Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings were among the top 10.

Sanyu's Potted Chrysanthemums was the second-highest lot of the evening after the Zhang Xiaogang piece, selling for $7.4 million. (Sotheby's)

Sanyu’s Potted Chrysanthemums was the second-highest lot of the evening after the Zhang Xiaogang piece, selling for $10.3 million. (Photo courtesy Sotheby’s)

Here are the top 10 lots with exact prices in USD:

1. Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: Big Family No. 3, 1995: $12,076,923

2. Sanyu, Potted Chrysanthemums, 1950s: $10,353,846

3. S. Sudjojono, Pasukan Kita Yang Dipimppin Pangeran Diponegoro (Our Soldiers Led Under Prince Diponegoro), 1979: $7,482,051

4. Chen Yifei, Morning Prayer, 1996: $3,461,538

5. Zeng Fanzhi, This Land So Rich In Beauty No. 6 (Diptych), 2006: $2,887,179

6. Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series No. 5, 1994: $2,887,179

7. Zao Wou-Ki, 06.01.64, 1964: $2,743,590

8. Zao Wou-Ki, 18.08.67, 1967: $2,671,795

9. Zao Wou-Ki, 20.01.64, 1964: $2,456,410

10. Kazuo Shiraga, Chitaisei Honkoshin, 1960: $2,312,821

The strength of blue-chip works went far beyond the top 10. Many Chinese contemporary works in the seven-figure range met or exceeded their estimates, such as Yue Minjun’s Garbage Hill, which fetched $1.5 million, and Liu Wei’s Dad In Front of TV Set, which sold for about $1.4 million. The auction achieved a sale of 92.7 percent of all works by lot and 96.3 percent by value, showing that interest remains strong among blue-chip buyers at all price levels.

With thanks to Sotheby’s Hong Kong


Chicken cup is far from chickenfeed . . . at US$36.3m.


When it comes to price, so-called chicken cups are far from being chickenfeed . . . as was made clear April 8 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong when a single cup fetched the equivalent of US$36.3m., exclusive of buyer’s premium. This set a new world record for a piece of Chinese ceramics. For avid and well-heeled collectors of Chinese ceramics, few pieces engender as much excitement as the small Ming dynasty-era bowls commonly known as “chicken cups.”

The bowl was bought by Shanghai billionaire property developer and collector Liu Yiqian who we have previously written about.

These bowls, quite small enough to be held comfortably in the palm of an average-sized hand, were created in a strictly limited period between 1465 and 1487, and are so-called for the chickens painted on their sides. Only 19 are known to exist, and of those just four are in private hands, with the rest in museum collections.

Part of the Meiyintang collection owned by Switzerland’s Zuellig family, this same bowl was also the last chicken cup to go up for auction, in 1999. Also at a Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong, it brought US$3.7 million—at the time, a record for a piece of Chinese porcelain.

Prices for Chinese ceramics have skyrocketed since, but reverence for these cups goes back even further. Indeed, it has lasted since imperial times during the Ming dynasty. Several works of Chinese literature refer to the chicken cups, often describing how emperors and nobles spent fortunes to obtain them – even in the 17th century.

Of 19 chicken cups known to exist, 15 are in museums. Photo courtesy EPA

“This is the crowning glory for collectors,” says Nicholas Chow, Sotheby’s Chinese ceramics expert.

The painting on the cup is a naive, almost childish, coloured depiction of a rooster and a hen taking care of a young chick—a parable for Confucian virtues that extend to an emperor’s looking after his subjects. The simplicity is what makes this cup so desirable, said Mr. Chow, and the artist’s “impressionistic” style is atypical for that time.

But, as usual with Chinese porcelain, it is a case of caveat emptor. Mr. Chow says the chicken cups are the most-copied bowls in China, and even the Chenghua examples in museums have aroused suspicion. In a Sotheby’s catalogue essay about the chicken-cup sale, ceramics expert Regina Krahl has written that former Sotheby’s Chairman Julian Thompson had maintained that the two examples at the Palace Museum in Beijing were fakes. (The museum declared in an official 1999 catalog that they are actually authentic.) Today, antique markets in China offer imitations for as little as a few yuan apiece. “It’s like hanging a copy of the Mona Lisa,” Mr. Chow said. “Everybody’s heard of the chicken cup.” But only the wealthiest of collectors will be able to enter the fray and bid for this very special offering, which is almost certainly the real thing.

Contacted today on the telephone by The Wall Street Journal, the buyer appeared a trifle indignant at being questioned about the record price. “Why do you all care so much about the price?” He affirmed that he thought the price he had paid was “reasonable”. “I bought it only because I like it.”

The under-bidder was London’s leading buyer of Chinese art, Giuseppe Eskenazi. He was the buyer the last time the cup came on the market in 1999. After that purchase he sold it on to an Italian collector.

With acknowledgement to Jason Chow, Scene Asia and European Press Agency

Anxious minds focused on Hong Kong spring sales

With the Spring sale season about to start in Hong Kong, investors will be casting anxious eyes on the Chinese contemporary art sales. Works by Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi, Liu Ye and Yue Minjun are the highlights of Sotheby’s April 5 auction. The question is as to whether the market will power on, or simply plateau.

Zhang Xiaogang’s rare early work Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 is estimated at US$8.4m. to $10.3m. (equivalent converted from HK$). Zeng Fanzhi’s work is estimated between $1.4m. and $3m. Yue Minjun’s Garbage Hill is estimated at between $1.2m. and $2m.

garbage hill yue minjun

Garbage Hill by Yue Munjun  Sotheby’s

These figures are, in fact, not so large as they might appear at first sight. China’s most expensive piece of contemporary art was Zeng Fanzhi’s The Last Supper. It got US$23.3 last year. Neither are these works expensive when set against the cost of Western contemporary art. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud scooped $145m. Other Western artists have also seen records in the last year: Andy Warhol $105m.; and Jeff Coons $54m.

Wait for some more records out of Hong Kong in a few days time . . . the band of collectors in China grows ever larger and this will, before too long, mean there is a scarcity of top level contemporary art. Eventually, the Chinese market will command prices on a par with those of top Western artists. Recent successful exhibitions of contemporary Chinese artists at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the focus on China at the New York Armory event this year, and the retrospective of the work of Zeng Fanzhi at the Paris Musee d’Art Moderne, all add fuel to the fire.

Allure of jade tempts buyers

Sothebys001-1-300x200 Hutton-Mdivani necklace

The best jade pieces continue to tempt buyers to dig deep in their pockets – especially those in China – despite ups and downs in the market and changing tastes. There have recently been some outstanding prices achieved at auction.

In April of last year, Christie’s in London sold a relatively simple jade necklace featuring two rows of jadeite beads with an art deco diamond clasp for £49,875 (US$77,630) against an estimate of £5,000-6,000. The following May, Sotheby’s in Hong Kong very comfortably exceeded pre-sale estimates with a jadeite bangle selling for $HK1.2m. (estimate 200-250,000), and a jadeite and diamond ring fetching a cool million Hong Kong (estimate 350,000-500,000).

This year, the attention of jade enthusiasts will be directed to an outstanding jadeite necklace (jadeite is reckoned to be the very best type of jade) known as the Hutton-Mdivani necklace and which used to be the property of the heiress Barbara Woolworth Hutton. It will be exposed for sale in April in Hong Kong by Sotheby’s in the Magnificent Jewels and Jadeite Sale and Sotheby’s anticipate it reaching more than US$12m. It was last sold at auction in 1988 in Hong Kong when it fetched US$2m. It was then the most expensive piece of jadeite jewellery ever sold.

barbara hutton

Barbara Hutton wearing the necklace to be sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong Sotheby’s

The importance of the necklace is not just attributed to its intrinsic beauty, but also to the likelihood of its Imperial connections. Sotheby’s suggest that ‘considering the impressive size and quality [of the beads] it is likely they would have been presented to the Imperial court . . . ‘. The auctioneers go on to assert that they could ‘possibly’ have been removed from the Imperial Palace during the instability of the late 19th century. What is known for sure is that when the beads surfaced in Europe at the end of the 19th century they were fashioned into the present necklace by Cartier in Paris.

Although, it remains a matter of supposition as to whether the beads originated from the Qing Imperial court, the necklace is indubitably a remarkable and most beautiful creation. Establishing the worth of more minor pieces remains, however, very much a subjective thing. Speaking to The New York Times, Vicki Sek, head of jewellery at Christie’s in Hong Kong, observed, “There is no formula to value jadeite. Obviously, there is the colour and shade, but you have to factor in the translucence and the material. It’s really a combination of the three.” Tackling the issue of colour, she revealed further complexities. “What is considered a good green colour is difficult to explain. At the top, we have what we call ‘vivid emerald green’, then there is ‘brilliant green’, ‘intense green’ and ‘apple green’ .”

Tricky, eh? Miss Sek admits that this is a form of internal grading at Christie’s, forms of which are used at other auction houses. It is nothing like rating gold or other precious stones. There is no carat system. To complicate matters further, jade does not just come in shades of green but also in lavender (currently popular); red and yellow (the result of oxidation and colour-inducing impurities); black (a deep green, the result of high iron content); and white (lacking colouring impurities).

Translucency is also categorised by most auction houses. At Christie’s they use ‘glassy translucent’ (the best), ‘highly translucent’ (next best) and ‘opaque’, which means you can’t see through the stone and, accordingly, it is not rated nearly so highly.

Real jade is now getting rarer and demand is rising, especially from China where it enjoys mystical properties. Most often it is cut and polished without facets, and the base flattened. This maximises the colour and the piece is then known as being in ‘cabochon’ style, much sought after by true collectors.