A Dethroned Emperor Outshined Jeff Koons as Contemporary Art Struggled at Christies's Hong Kong and Seoul Auctions

Yue Minjun’s “The Massacre at Chios,”, 1994, sold for HK4 32.58 million ($4.539 million) at Christie’s evening sale on November 26.
(Courtesy Christie's Hong Kong)

The cooling Chinese market has finally taken its toll on contemporary art sales in Hong Kong. On the weekend, fine pieces by such major Chinese artists as Liu Ye, Zeng Fanzhi, and Zhang Xiaogang were bought in at Christie’s, and on Monday a boutique sale of international art at Seoul Auctions saw work by marquee names like Jeff Koons and Yayoi Kusama fail to find favor.

As of this season, Christie’s Hong Kong is bundling all contemporary and modern Asian art into one big sector, a strategy that not only gives Asian art a similar status to Western art at the house but also — as it turns out — serves to smooth over the cracks that are opening up in parts of the contemporary Asian market. Impressive results for Southeast Asian contemporary and modern art and for Chinese modern masters on the weekend went some way to cushioning the disappointment of the house’s touted Chinese contemporary art evening sale, called "Faces of New China" — at least for the purposes of the post-weekend press release. This recorded that more than 60 percent of the Asian modern and contemporary art works offered over the past weekend sold above their high estimates, delivering a record average-lot value this season for Christie’s Hong Kong of HK$1.7 million ($218,000).

But no one in the room at the evening sale of Asian modern and contemporary art on Saturday night could help but notice the anaemic level of support for Chinese contemporary art. And given the role of this sector in boosting Hong Kong as a venue for contemporary art sales, this must be cause for concern to the major auction houses and dealers. "Faces of New China," the single-owner sale, was meant to be the high point of the evening auction, but six of the 14 lots were bought in and another four sold below their low estimate. The quality of the works on offer was not in question: among the pieces passed in were strong works by Liu Ye and Zhang Xiaogang, who up until now have been two of the most consistently supported of Chinese contemporary artists both internationally and in China.

The evening sale began with a packed room and a sense of anticipation, but after the single-owner sale the air seemed to go out of the room, and with it much of the audience. Although there were some good moments for contemporary art later in the night — with early works by Fang Lijun and Yoshitomo Nara reaching their high estimates — it was Asian modern art that saved the evening with passionate battles erupting over a number of works by Chinese modern masters Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun, and also over a particularly fine canvas by Belgian-born Bali resident Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Mepres (1880-1958), which sold for HK$7.940 million ($1 million) against a high estimate of HK$3.7 million.

A similar pattern was seen at the day sales on Sunday, where Southeast Asian and Chinese modern art performed well while contemporary Asian artists (other than those from Southeast Asia) largely disappointed.

The winners from all this were the collectors who kept Eric Chang (Christie’s international director of Asian 20th century and contemporary art) busy well negotiating private sales on lots bought in. By the time we sat down to mull the results on Monday afternoon Chang had already secured a buyer for Zhang Xiaogang’s “Portrait in Yellow” (1993), which was passed in from the "Faces of New China" sale, and had hopes of finding buyers for two works by Tang Zhigang that were similarly friendless in the bidding. Chang did not accept that the estimates for the sale may have been too aggressive in a slowing market, though it can be noted that of the lots which did sell — including three early canvases by Yue Minjun and one by Cai Guo-Qiang — most did so at prices below their low estimate.

As it turned out Christie’s strategy of blending all of Asian modern and contemporary art into one sector had some interesting effects that will be worth watching. It seems to have promoted an encouraging level of “cross-cultural” collecting and bidding. That Asian buyers are beginning to venture outside their own national comfort zone is particularly important for artists whose country’s own markets are moribund, such as those from Japan and South Korea. One notable example was that the successful bidder on Yoshitomo Nara’s superb early work “Looking for Treasure” (1995) was a Chinese collector from Shanghai. Nara now seems poised to see a jump in his market in Asia with plans for a major solo show at Pace Beijing next year.

But it’s already clear that the real heat in the market in Hong Kong this season — as at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong last month, and in Beijing last week — is not in contemporary Asian art but in the heartland sector of traditional Chinese painting, either from the classical or modern period. It is here that the entry of Chinese mainland collectors has had the most galvanizing influence. Even with speculative money driven from the market place by China’s credit crunch, this sector is still booming as Chinese from the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and further afield compete for what they know and love best. Even as Eric Chang and ARTINFO China were talking yesterday, lot after lot at Christie’s fine Chinese classical painting and calligraphy sale were being hammered down at multiples of their high estimates. Results from the fine chinese modern painting auction yet to come this week are expected to be similarly impressive.

This lesson was also on display at the Seoul Auctions sale across town at the Mandarin Oriental Monday. For three years now Seoul has made a reputation for itself in Hong Kong with trailblazing auction sales of Western modern and contemporary art, drawing mostly on the fine collections of Western art to be found in South Korea and Japan. These collections were built up over two or more decades by connoisseurs who suddenly saw the local market for their chosen sector collapse. In South Korea, political scandals around Western art collecting stifled the high end of the market, while the Japanese scene has never really recovered from the collapse of the bubble economy there in the early 1990s.

Since listing in Hong Kong is 2008, Seoul Auctions has carved out a niche bridging the gap between significant collections of Western art in those countries and the emerging Chinese and Southeast Asian markets. So far their achievements have been modest, but even so yesterday’s results must have been particularly disappointing, with only 29 out of 49 lots sold. Yet Seoul Auction’s CEO, Jun Lee, was refreshingly free of spin. The market was “tough” he told ARTINFO China, and seems to be in lock step with the region’s stock markets. Reflecting particularly on the failure of the cover lot — the wonderfully off-message “Smooth Egg with Bow” from Jeff Koon’s "Celebration" series — Lee observed that the South Korean collector who consigned the work was satisfied to have tested the waters in Asia and more than happy to wait for a better market. The Koons was bought in just below the low estimate at a top bid of HK$54 million ($7 million).

But there was one note of excitement at Seoul’s sale. Sitting oddly among Western greats like Hirst, Warhol, Koons, and Degas was a classically-inspired ink on silk painting by China’s penultimate emperor, Guangxu (1871-1908). The work — entitled “Peony” — was a beautiful but modest thing, and its low pre-sale estimate of HK$20,000-30,000 ($2,600-3,850) raised few eyebrows. But the China effect — the passion of mainland collectors for their own history — can set any saleroom on fire, and so it proved yesterday, perhaps because this was a work of particular poignancy. It was the ill-fated Emperor Guangxu who sparked the only attempt at modernisation in the late imperial period in China. Now remembered as the Hundred Days’ Reform, his sweeping 1898 program was cut short by a reactionary coup under the Empress Dowager Cixi, and Guangxu lived out the rest of his reign under house arrest. He died of arsenic poisoning at the age of 37, possibly at the hand of Cixi herself, who in turn died just one day later secure in the knowledge that China was safe at last from her nephew’s ruinous notions of progress.

The painting that hammered yesterday for HK$300,000 ($38,500), ten times its high estimate, had been executed by Guangxu during his years of house arrest and bore the personal seal of his tormenter Cixi, marking it as part of her personal collection. Jeff Koons may have failed to make history in Hong Kong yesterday, but somewhere in China a collector picked up a piece of his own past at a price which would have by no account felt too high.

Attention now shifts to the Chinese traditional modern painting, porcelain, and works of art sales to see whether the China effect will also help deliver Christie’s Hong Kong a strong result in a difficult season.