Editor’s Picks: Top 10 Events Happened in Auction World in 2018

As 2018 is coming to its end, we have picked out some major events that happened in the auction world over the year. Some of them caused a huge sensation whereas some of them have a prolonged impact on the industry. We had a very tough decision to make since there were too many game-changing events that took place in 2018. (The following events are arranged in an arbitrary order.)

1. Largest work by abstract master Zao Wou-ki

The auction world has seen a frenzy over works by Chinese abstract master Zao Wou-ki (1920-2013). The frenzy reached its climax following the sale of the largest work by Zao Wou-ki, Juin-Octobre 1985 that measures 280 x 1,000cm. It was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in September for a record-smashing HK$510m (US$65m). Not only did it break the record for the most valuable painting sold in Hong Kong auctions, but it also obliterated the world auction record for an oil painting by an Asian artist.

Zao Wou-ki (1920-2013). Juin-Octobre 1985.

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Modern Art Evening Sale
Sale date: 30 September 2018
Price realised: HK$510,371,000

Holy grail of Chinese painting, Su Shi’s Wood and Rock, appeared onto the market

During this autumn season, a 1000-year-old handscroll by Chinese polymath Su Shi also took the spotlight when it reappeared onto the market. Su Shi’s Wood and Rock was dubbed ‘the holy grail of Chinese painting’ by the auction house since very few examples by the Chinese literati are known to have survived after all these years. Besides the Bamboo and Rock in the National Art Museum of China, this painting is the only one in private hands.

Wood and Rock sold for HK$463m (US$59.5m) and set a new auction record for Chinese painting sold at auctions in Hong Kong. The auction house said they are happy to see the painting return to Greater China. They believe the painting will be on public display in the future, hinting a possibility that the buyer could be an institution or museum.

A self-portrait of Su Shi

Su Shi (1037-1101)’s Wood and Rock. Handscroll, ink on paper

Auction house: Christie’s Hong Kong
Sale: Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale)
Sale date: 26 November 2018
Price realised: HK$463,600,000

Banksy’s self-shredded ‘Girl with Balloon’

Girl with Balloon, one of Banksy’s iconic works, was mysteriously shredded after being sold at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening sale when it was hammered down at £860,000 and sold for £1.042m (US$1.4 m) after premium, tying the artist’s record in pounds at auction previously achieved in 2008.

The street artist later posted a video revealing how he secretly built a shredder in the frame a few years ago and destroyed the painting. The half-shredded painting, now titled Love is in the Bin, is expected to be worth at least 50% higher, possibly as high as being worth £2m or even more.

Banksy. Girl with Balloon

Auction house: Sotheby’s London
Sale: Contemporary Art Evening sale
Sale date: 5 October 2018
Price realised: £1,042,000

Xuzhen Supermarket – a concept that sold for HK$2m

In the 21st century, intangible art is everywhere. You don’t only buy artwork in salerooms for you can now buy a concept of a piece of untouchable art. At Sotheby’s autumn sales this year, the concept of Xuzhen Supermarket, conceived by Chinese contemporary artist Xu Zhen, sold for HK$2m. The successful bidder acquired the right to commission new physical recreations and enactments of the concept through an auction again.

Xuzhen Supermarket replicates a Chinese convenience store, housing a functioning cash register and an assortment of familiar merchandise available for visitors to purchase at normal retail prices. For visitors, each act of purchasing – or not purchasing – and corresponding thought-process, contributes to a playful yet penetrating critique on consumerism, advertising and global capitalism.

Xuzhen Supermarket

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Sale date: 30 September 2018
Price realised: HK$2,000,000

Christie’s became the first international auction house to host a maotai sale

Having seen the increasing demand in the market for maotai, China’s ‘national liquor’, Christie’s decided to be the first international auction house to host a maotai sale. The first sale was held in Shanghai this September, realising a total of more than RMB 25.5m.

The most expensive lot of the sale was a set of 1980 Feitian Maotai with 12 bottles, 540ml each bottle, which sold for RMB 660,000.

Auction house: Christie’s Shanghai
Sale: Treasures of Chishui River - Kweichow Moutai
Sale date: 21 September 2018
Sale total: RMB 25,527,600

First piece of AI-generated portrait sold at auction

An artwork created by artificial intelligence, titled Portrait of Edmond Belamy, sold for US$432,000 at auction in New York this October. The first piece of AI-generated artwork to go up for sale at an auction sold for a price far exceeding the presale estimate of US$7,000-10,000.

The painting belongs to a group of portraits of the fictional Belamy family created by Obvious, a Paris-based collective engaged in exploring the interface between art and artificial intelligence. They fed the system with a data set of 15,000 portraits painted between the 14th and the 20th centuries. The AI-generated painting has a signature of algebraic formula with its many parentheses.

Edmond de Belamy

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Photographs & Prints
Auction date: 23-25 October 2018
Price realised: US$432,000

The use of blockchain at auctions

In November, Christie’s piloted encrypted registration of art transactions on a blockchain in collaboration with Artory, a leading independent digital registry for the art market. The blockchain technology was used in recording all public information regarding the sale of each lot in the Ebsworth Collection, including title, description, final price, and date, and produce a digital certificate of the transaction for Christie’s.

The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale achieved an 88% sold by lot, selling 37 of all 42 lots offered. The leading lot of the sale was Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey, which fetched a record US$91.9m, a new high for the realist artist as well as the record price for pre-war American art.

Bonhams auction house sold to British private equity firm Epiris

In September, British private equity firm Empiris announced that it has acquired Bonhams, the 225-year-old global auction house. Bonhams was the fourth acquisition made by Epiris Fund II. Financial terms were not being disclosed. Epiris Fund II has appointed Bruno Vinciguerra as Bonhams’ Executive Chairman. Matthew Girling will remain to be the company’s CEO.

Bonhams is one of the world’s oldest and largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. Besides fine art and antiques, the 225-year-old auction house is rising in prominence in other fields. It has pulled off several remarkable sales this year, including several sales selling record-setting bottles of Macallan whisky.

Matthew Girling remains to be the company’s CEO

Bruno Vinciguerra

The Hong Kong headquarter is under the leadership of Edward Wilkinson, Executive Director of Bonhams Asia

David Hockney becomes the most expensive living artist

David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) has become the most valuable work of art by a living artist ever sold at auction after selling for a record-shattering US$90.3m at Christie’s in New York this November, replacing the previous record holder by Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange).

David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold for a record-shattering US$90.3m

Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange) previously held the record for the most valuable work by a living artist

Hockney’s pool-themed paintings are the most desirable among collectors and connoisseurs. It is one of the only eight paintings of two-figures style created by Hockney, and this particular one features the artist and Peter Schlesinger, who was one of Hockney's great loves.

David Hockney is now the most expensive living artist

David Hockney (b. 1937). Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Date: 15 November 2018
Price realised: US$90,312,500

Opposition of selling rhinoceros carvings at auctions

Auction houses came under fire for selling rhinoceros items after facing fierce opposition from a wildlife conservation group. The controversy started when auction house Bonhams scheduled a sale in Hong Kong on 27 November offering 21 pieces of rhinoceros horns carvings from the collection of Angela Chua, a Hong Kong collector.

The sale caught the attention from an environmental organisation WildAid, which had showed its strong opposition against the auction with concern that the sale “will only serve to stimulate poaching, trafficking and trade of Africa's last remaining rhinos.” The group started a petition to ask the auction house to stop the sale and the petition has garnered over 10,000 signatures. Bonhams cancelled the sale and has pledged not to offer artefacts of rhinoceros horn in its salerooms. In response to the incident, other auction houses like Sotheby’s, Poly Auction and China Guardian have also promised to join Christie’s and Bonhams’ decision to stop selling rhinoceros horn in their salerooms.

The catalogue of Bonhams’ sale of Chinese rhinoceros horn carvings

The environmental group started a petition to stop Bonhams’ sale of rhino horns