5 Art-Market Trends Revealed by the Recent Hong Kong Auctions

Qi Baishi’s “Album of Mountains and Rivers,” 1922, was the top lot at China Guardian’s inaugural Hong Kong sale, selling for HK$46 million (US$5.9 million) against a high estimate of HK$26 million on October 7.
(China Guardian)

The Chinese art market has now been slowing for more than a year. The cooling which first became evident in Hong Kong last fall became a definite chill in spring, when the market leaders on the Chinese mainland, China Guardian and Poly Auctions, saw their takes drop by a dramatic 60 percent and 50 percent respectively compared to spring 2011. 

In this week’s Hong Kong auction results there was ammunition for pessimists and optimists alike — it all depended on where you looked. Events reminded us of the danger of generalizing about a market where such diverse genres, traditions, and passions intertwine.

ARTINFO China brings you our take on 5 trends to note from the fall season so far.

The Market Is Still Slowing — But Not As Fast

Sotheby’s spring 2012 take was down 25 percent from fall 2011, but the total for fall 2012 is down only 19 percent from the spring. The decline is most stark in the previously glamorous category of Asian Contemporary Art (and particularly Chinese Contemporary Art), which turned in a disappointing performance last Sunday. The anemic result was mostly down to the difficulty Sotheby’s has had in securing significant consignments in a declining market. Faced with very few important works to battle over, bidders understandably turned choosy. When there was something worth fighting over — for example, Liu Wei’s “Revolutionary Family Series — Invitation to Dinner” (1992) — bidders came out of their shells and drove the price to a new record for the artist of HK$17.46 million ($2.24 million), against a high estimate of HK$15 million ($1.9 million).

The Asian Contemporary Art Market Generally Is Soft, But Southeast Asian Art Is Booming

Southeast Asian art has been a market to watch for some seasons now and this fall delivered Sotheby’s its best-ever result for the sector. Their Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Paintings sale last Sunday raked in HK$121 million ($15.5 million), almost doubling their pre-sale estimate. Icing on the cake was provided by Indonesian modern artist Lee Man Fong, whose “Fortune and Longevity,” 1951, set a new world record for Southeast Asian painting when it sold for HK$34.26 million ($4.4 million).

Auguring well for the sector’s continuing development is that Asia’s canniest collectors, the Taiwanese, have now entered the fray, indicating this is a market with a long way to go yet.

While Chinese Interest Is Down, Asian and Western Collectors Got More of a Look In

As China’s economy continues to slow, and mainland collectors also deal with the fallout from this year’s crackdown on tax evasion in the art market, China is making much less of a splash in Hong Kong. This has given Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asian, and even Western collectors a chance to make their presence felt in the Hong Kong sale rooms. Two of the top lots in Sotheby’s Contemporary Asian Sale last Sunday went to Westerners, including the top lot, Zhang Xiaogang's “Tiananmen No 1,” 1993, which sold to a European collector for HK$20.82 million ($2.67 million), comfortably within the pre-sale estimate of HK$15–25 million. Meanwhile in last Tuesday’s Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale, a Hong Kong collector walked off with the prize lot, a pair of Qianlong period Yellow Ground Famille-Rose Double-Gourd Vases which doubled their high estimate when they sold for HK$107 million ($US13.7 million).

The Market For Chinese Traditional Modern Painting Appears Insatiable

Chinese traditional modern painting, represented by such market darlings as Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi (number one and two respectively on the 2011 Artprice best-selling artists at auction list) has long been the powerhouse of the Hong Kong market. Last week the appetite for these modern masters of the guohua tradition seemed as insatiable as ever: China Guardian’s inaugural sale in this sector on Sunday chalked up sales of an HK$354 million ($45.6 million), almost trebling their pre-sale estimate, only to be trumped by Sotheby’s take of HK$414.8 million ($53.2 million) at their Fine Chinese Painting sale the very next day.

This is a market driven by passionate collectors from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the diaspora, and a widely held belief that traditional modern painters from China are still significantly undervalued by contrast to their contemporaries like Picasso in the West.

The Market For Luxuries Like Wine and Watches Continues Strong

Finally, there is still plenty of juice in the Asian market for luxuries like wine and watches. Sotheby’s in fact had their best-ever global result for a various-owner sale of watches in Hong Kong on Tuesday, taking over HK$120 million ($15 million) — actually equaling their take from Contemporary Asian Art this season.

For highlights of the fall season so far, click on the slideshow.