Western Contemporary Art in the Asian Market

Two of the biggest art auction houses in the world are heading over to the Asian market; Christie’s and Phillips are bringing western contemporary art to Hong Kong for major sales. With some of the most prominent names and their famous works being offered, the question of potential of the Asian art collectors remains lingering. Phillips put up Keifer, Doig, Condo and Ruscha on offer in Hong Kong, and Christie’s brought over some equally resounding names like Willem de Kooning, Cecily Brown, Rudolf Stingel, Cy Twombly and Adrian Ghenie. But does the Asian art market’s appetite and resources reach such high levels of demand, and can it play a competitive role to its Western counterpart?

According to Enid Tsui, from the South China Morning Post, most art lovers in Asia will never be able to afford the highest-priced items such as works of Richter or Warhol, so she believes a different strategy is required. Tsui thinks sales of lower-priced items would yield better results and create a much more significant impact for Western art in the Asian market, especially if those items would come from a category which may hold special appeal in the said market. Enid Tsui proposed an interesting example of this idea, namely, Portrait of Lady Jane Staunton with Her Son, Afterwards Sir George Thomas Staunton Baronet, And a Chinese Attendant Holding a Chest of Tea is a late-18th century work by British artist John Hoppner. This piece was estimated at £10,000 to £15,000 at Sotherby’s auction in London on May 3, and it was unsold. Should it have been offered in Hong Kong, the results might have been very different, it would have gotten much more attention at the very least. A street in Central Hong Kong is named after Sir George and the featured figure of a Chinese attendant would have undoubtedly drawn attention of Chinese buyers.

Regardless of the speculations and criticisms about poorly chosen works for offer, Phillips held its Spring Hong Kong sale and made quite astounding results. Over the weekend, the auction house made $17.7m between the two sales. Bidders from 22 countries participated at the Phillips’ Evening Sale of 20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design in Hong Kong, and the impressive 91% of the lot was sold. Even new world auction records were set with works by Christine Ay Tjoe and a sculpture by KAWS. Head of the 20th Century and Contemporary Art & Deputy Chairman for Phillips Asia, Jonathan Crockett, claims the outstanding results of the sales are simply further establishing Phillips’ presence and rapid growth in Asia. Yoshimoto Nara’s Last Warrior / The Unknown Soldier sold for HK$21,680,000 after a fierce bidding war, and the intense pace of the auction persisted throughout the evening which in the end yielded two new world records for KAWS and Christine Ay Tjoe.

Just recently, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa bought Basquiat’s skull painting for a record-breaking $110.5m at Sotheby’s, almost doubling the artist’s previous record and setting the highest price at auction for a post-1980 work of art and the second-highest price for any contemporary work at auction. This astounding sale certainly brought Sotheby’s a much needed boost after a streak of weaker results in the recent years. Art dealer, David Nisenson, claims sales like these prove that a new generation of billionaires is coming up and that the Modern art market is becoming the contemporary market. Combined with the fact the art collectors from Asia are taking a significant step-up in the global art market, these recent sales might be hinting at what is to come.  

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