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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi
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The $352 million total for Christie’s Hong Kong spring sales last week might seem grim compared to the equivalent spate of auctions a year ago, which rang in a heady $515 million, a record for Hong Kong sales for the auction house. Whatever the cause, the slowing growth of the Chinese economy is being blamed for the more sober results, which echo the fall 2011 Hong Kong sales six months ago, which did $366 million.

The most recent results, then, can be read as an indicator that the contraction of the Chinese art market has stabilized, at least for the time being. Christie’s Hong Kong’s $352 million total also bested Sotheby’s Hong Kong spring sales, which took place in April, and tallied $316 million, amped by the $26.7 million sale of a rare Ru kiln brush washer.

Christie’s launched its set of sales with a 45-lot evening auction of Asian 20th-century and contemporary art on Saturday, May 26, 2012. The $46.6 million total represented a 91 percent sell-through rate, the best of the week (aside from a white glove wine sale). Last fall the same sale totaled $50 million with 74 percent of the lots sold, and in May 2011 the total was $63.3 million and 96 percent sold.

Eight of the top ten lots exceeded their presale estimates (though the sale prices include the auction house commission, while the estimates do not), and demand for a handful of artists was responsible for the bulk of the sale’s total. Two World War II-era paintings of sparse bouquets by the Chinese-French calligrapher Sanyu (1901-66) took first and third place -- Blue Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase fetched $6.1 million, and Pink Lotus brought $5 million -- an interesting development, considering the just-opened exhibition of even more minimalist “Plant Drawings” by Ellsworth Kelly at the Metropolitan Museum.

All three paintings by Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964), whose “masked” portraiture has been popular with Western collectors for some time, came out of European collections and sold to Asian buyers. The second priciest lot was his Fly (2000), depicting two male figures, one with an arguable resemblance to Andy Warhol, in a field of roses with a pair of trailing airplanes in the background. It sold for $5.1 million, well above a $3.2 million presale high estimate, and is requested for a 2013 retrospective organized by the Musee National de la Ville de Paris.

A second Zeng, this one a portrait of a man and his dog from “A Private Swiss Collection” (could it be Uli Sigg, the former Swiss ambassador to China and noted collector of Chinese contemporary art?) sold for $3.7 million (est. $1.3 million-$1.9 million), and the third brought $857,000 (est. $647,000-$1 million).

The top ten included three of the five canvases on offer by the Chinese-French painter Zao Wou-ki, who was born in 1921. A 77-inch-tall abstract painting in three colors from 1985 was the star there, fetching $2.6 million, just above its $1.9 million presale estimate.

In contrast to last spring, the auction house did not host separate sales of Southeast Asian art, but a work by the Indonesian artist Lee Man Fong (1913-88) more than doubled its high estimate when it sold for $1.7 million. The popularity of the work, Fifteen Goldfish, may have had something to do with its subject, goldfish being one of the best-known symbols in Chinese iconography for wealth and abundance.

The next major sale on May 28 featured classical paintings and calligraphy, and was somewhat stronger than last spring’s equivalent sale, which brought $17.3 million for 71 of 80 lots sold. This year’s sale offered nearly twice as many lots -- 164 in all -- and totaled $26.4 million with 86 percent of the lots selling. The result was the highest for a sale in this category at Christie’s.

Each of the top five lots sold for at nearly five times their high estimates, and, as in the case of the sale’s number one lot, sometimes even more. That work -- a scroll with poems by Dong Qichang (1555-1636) that bears 20 collectors seals, applied through the centuries by its various royal owners -- brought an impressive $7.5 million, well above the presale estimate of $650,000-$900,000. It is noted as coming from a Chinese collector in North America and the buyer is listed as “US Private” -- a bit of an anomaly, though of course the nationality of the winning bidder is not mentioned.

In all, 73 percent of the sold lots during the classical paintings and calligraphy sale achieved sums greater than presale expectations.

At the following sale of Chinese modern paintings on May 29, the story was much the same as the contemporary sale, where demand was concentrated on just a few artists. Of 407 lots, 372 sold for a total of $58.5 million, or 91 percent by lot.

The large sale was paired with a small, single-artist sale of works by Cui Ruzhuo (b. 1944), the Beijing-born, U.S.-based calligrapher and painter who is credited with developing his own unique brush and finger-painting method. The Ruzhuo auction totaled $15.8 million for 26 lots sold -- just shy of what a single canvas by the artist brought at Christie’s Hong Kong in November 2011, when the $15.9 million sale of Lotus set the record for the artist.

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) and Xu Beihong (1895-1953) dominated the modern paintings session -- eight of the top ten lots were by these two artists alone. Zhang had 52 lots in the sale, only five of which were bought in. The auction catalogue cover lot was a 1952 painting of a woman with calligraphy titled Separation that was the sale’s highest priced work, at $4.4 million. In another mode entirely is Mist Clearing over Pine Covered Peaks, an abstract landscape in ink that features a prominent bright blue splash. It sold for $3.9 million, above its $2.3 million presale high estimate.

Xu Beihong ink-on-paper paintings of horses were popular. Admiring the Stallion (1937), which shows a black-maned horse from the rear, was sold for $2.1 million (est. $518,000-$647,000), reportedly to an “Asian Pacific” private buyer. Two paintings of galloping versions of the same subject also achieved prices far in excess of presale estimates of $258,000-$358,000 -- one for $748,000 and another for $857,000.

The round of auctions ended with a trio of sales of Chinese ceramics and works of art, which saw a marked decline in volume from both last spring and last fall’s sales, mostly in ceramics. Christie’s Asia head François Curiel explained to the Financial Times that it has become harder to convince sellers to part with their collections, which translates into fewer lots offered and higher reserves for the works the auction house did manage to rally.

Christie’s Hong Kong “Imperial Sale” offered 84 lots, just 54 of which sold, or 64 percent, for a total of $28.2 million, about $17 million of which came from the sale of ten lots. Top lot there was a celadon glazed vase from the Qianlong period that sold for $3.7 million, at the low end of its $3.2 million-$4.5 million estimate. More excitement was mustered for a Ming dynasty Jun-glazed jardinière ($2.1 million, est. $777,000-$1 million) and a yellow jade vase, which sold to Littleton & Hennessy Asian Art for $2 million (est. $362,000$-517,000).

A small single-owner sale of 30 Chinese enamels added $8.4 million to the week’s total, selling 83 percent by lot. Leading the sale was a pair of caparisoned elephants “alleged” to have been in the collection of Winston Churchill, and later Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas. The Qianlong period enamels brought $1.08 million against a $518,000-$777,000 estimate.

The reticence of the market was most apparent perhaps in the 271-lot sale of Chinese ceramics and works of art, which totaled $29 million, with 172 lots selling, or 63 percent. The sale lacked the kind of double-digit piece of porcelain that boosted the Sotheby’s spring sale.

Three of the ten highest earning lots were ceramics, making room for materials like jadeite and wood in the top five. The auction catalogue cover lot, a large blue and white charger from the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) that was reputed to have been in the collection of a Japanese lord by the 17th century (it stayed in Japan, as the selling party is noted as a “Japanese Gentleman,” and the piece comes in a Japanese box) sold for $3.8 million, above a $2.3 million presale high estimate. Later, a jadeite archaistic vessel sold for $2.2 million (est. $388,000-$518,000), and a jadeite wine cup for $1.2 million (est. $233,000-$285,000).

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1,000,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

JESSICA MIZRACHI is a decorative arts specialist who writes on the art market.