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.