Bonhams to launch new Asia headquarters after Hong Kong Spring Sales surge 33% year-on-year

In 2022, Julia Hu took the helm at Bonhams Hong Kong, spearheading the company’s expansion across the Asian region. Under her leadership, the business has seen substantial growth, also buoyed in part by Hu's focus on talent recruitment and promotion.

A prime example of this success is the recent Hong Kong Spring sales season, where Bonhams reported total sales of HK$270 million - a robust 33% increase year-on-year. This standout performance underscores the auction house's ability to capitalize on opportunities in the Asian market, particularly during a time of macroeconomic uncertainties.

One notable highlight this season was the record-setting sale of Yayoi Kusama's unseen masterpiece, Infinity, which became the highest-priced contemporary artwork ever sold at Bonhams Hong Kong. Other bright spots include the white-glove sale of Vietnamese paintings from Findlay Galleries Collection, in which 12 exquisite paintings by Le Pho and Vu Ca Dam all sold above their high estimates; the exceptional performance of the single-owner sale of esteemed collector Ko Fook Chuen which took the collecting circle by storm; and the five 100% sold private collections from the Fine Chinese Paintings sale.

Building on this momentum, Bonhams recently announced plans to open a new Asia headquarters in Hong Kong's Six Pacific Place this September. This strategic move not only demonstrates the auction house's unwavering commitment to the region, but also forms part of its wider global growth plan.

Julia Hu | Managing Director, Bonhams Asia

Bonhams will relocate its Asian headquarters to Six Pacific Place this September

The auction industry has a rich, centuries-old history, and Bonhams stands as one of the most renowned names that has withstood the test of time with its over two-century legacy. While honoring the deep cultural heritage of the company, it is crucial for Bonhams to stay relevant and adapt in order to remain at the forefront of the ever-evolving auction landscape.

In addition, we saw an influx of new and young players fuelling the growth of the market, with nearly 20% of buyers being new to Bonhams and 33% being Millennials and Gen Z.

Julia Hu, Managing Director for Asia at Bonhams, comments on Hong Kong Spring Sales and the relocation: "Asia is the beating heart of Bonhams' global business. Over the past few years, we have strategically curated our strategy and strengthened our teams - resulting in an impressive over 30% growth in total sales this season - an achievement that stands out amidst the prevailing market landscape. Looking ahead, we are thrilled to be relocating to a new Asia headquarters this autumn. This critical move further demonstrates our commitment to this strategic, expanding market, and helps us attract new business opportunities across the region."

Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard, Bonhams’ Executive Chairman, remarks: “The opening of Bonhams’ new Asia headquarters is an important milestone in Bonhams history. It is a natural response to the steady but robust growth of our business in Asia, and to the demands of our ever-expanding client base in the market.

Modern and Contemporary Art

Marcello Kwan | Head of Modern and Contemporary Art, Bonhams Asia

Under the helm of Marcello Kwan, Bonhams' Modern and Contemporary Art Department in Hong Kong has achieved remarkable success season after season. In the spring of 2023, a significant milestone was reached when the department achieved record-high sales of HK$61 million – largely driven by the specially curated single-owner sale of Manfred Schoeni's collection of Chinese contemporary art. 

Underpinning Bonhams' strength in sourcing high-calibre artworks that cater to the market's appetite, this season Bonhams Hong Kong presented an exceedingly rare, never publicly seen abstract painting by the renowned and prolific artist Yayoi Kusama, Infinity. Rarely seen across her oeuvre of the past five decades, Infinity combines two of the most recognisable motifs in contemporary art: polka dots and infinity nets. 

One of the most influential female artists in the world, the 95-year-old Yayoi Kusuma is now having a moment both in mass culture and the art world, with demands for her works skyrocketing to new heights after back-to-back viral collaborations with Louis Vuitton and a major retrospective at the M+ Museum in Hong Kong. 

While bringing a fresh Kusama work to the market is already no mean feat, Bonhams went above and beyond by achieving a record-breaking sale of the painting for HK$46.4 million. 

Yayoi Kusama (b.1929) | Infinity, Acrylic on canvas (The highest-selling lot Bonhams' Modern and Contemporary Art Department in Hong Kong)
193 x 129.5 cm 
Sold: HK$46,434,000

Towering at an impressive height of two metres, this large-scale painting is strikingly divided into two halves, each adorned with repeating dots and nets; an exceptionally rare, if not unique, composition that appears for the first time at auction. 

The symbols of polka dots and infinity nets are deeply rooted in the somewhat troubled past of Kusama, something intrinsically baked into her art. Despite being born to a well-off family in Japan, Kusama began suffering from hallucinations at around the age of ten as a result of the oppression she received from her mother. 

She recalls the early episodes of psychosis, "I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space." Those vivid hallucinations of kaleidoscopic patterns continue to haunt her life, so much so that she more than once contemplated suicide. Yet, by persistently painting polka dots and infinity nets, she found peace and the strength to live. 

Combining both deeply personal motifs on a single canvas, Infinity is an artistic record of her sensory experience and the genuine face of her spiritual self.

Lee Ufan (b.1936) | Dialogue, Acrylic on canvas
130 x 162 cm
Sold: HK$5,338,000

One of the leading lights of both the Japan-based Mono-ha and Korean Dansaekhwa art movements, Lee Ufan is not only among the most internationally celebrated artists, but also a profound philosopher and theorist, known to express his thoughts through a variety of approaches that dwell upon Eastern cosmology and Western philosophy. 

Completed in 2005, Dialogue belongs to a larger series of the same name that has evolved since 2006. With a wide-tipped brush and a refined gradation of thick pigment, Lee painted a patch of colour on a monochrome canvas in a single stroke, and it is in this simplicity of form, material, and action that Lee channels a profound emotional resonance for the viewer, bringing them into a state of inner contemplation.

Through this body of work, Lee seeks an encounter with the world in relationship with others; he said, "As the brush glides across the white space on the blank canvas with extreme precision and causes it to vibrate, we can perceive the vibration as the essence of painting itself. A painting without a frame forms a relationship with the wall on which it is hung. As such, this painterly vibration resonates and propagates across the surrounding space." 

Zeng Fanzhi (b.1964) | Class One Series No. 30, Oil on canvas
48 x 38 cm 
Sold: HK$1,782,000

Comprising 32 pieces, the Class One Series is an important work created at the beginning of Zeng Fanzhi's artistic career. At the core of the series lies Zheng's childhood, one that was wrought with difficulties and trauma. Having come of age during the Cultural Revolution, Zeng grew up in an environment where a strong sense of community was expected in all aspects of life.

For a young boy, being accepted into society meant being a part of the Young Pioneers, admittance into which included the procurement of a red scarf. However, Zeng was consistently denied this scarf throughout his life, which left him with a deep sense of rejection and shame. This sense of exclusion was further intensified by the constant bullying he endured from other children. 

The Class One Series depicts three of such Young Pioneers behind masks, each donning the coveted red scarf that Zeng himself could never attain. Perhaps as a way to express the suppressed emotions stemming from his childhood experiences, these works serve as a form of liberation for Zeng, transforming his childhood traumas into pieces that are intentionally ironic, provocative, and infused with humor.

Cheong Soo Pieng (1917-1983) | Sisters, Oil on canvas
76.5 x 61 cm
Sold: HK$1,909,000

While Western art has risen to the fore in the Asian market over the past decade, the art world is now turning its eye towards Southeast Asian art – an emerging force with enormous potential. 

Cheong Soo Pieng, a pioneer of the Nanyang art style, is widely recognized as one of the most influential artists in Singapore and Southeast Asia, with a career spanning over four decades. In 1946, he left his hometown and settled in Singapore. As a newcomer, he felt a pressing need to establish a localized artistic identity and explore new subjects and forms of expression in Malaya. 

As a result, he embarked on extensive travels to gain inspiration, taking his artistic journey to various parts of Southeast Asia and Europe. These cross-cultural journeys nourished his practice, allowing him to incorporate various aesthetic experiences and elements he encountered into his works.

Completed in 1977, Sisters represents some of the most prominent features of Cheong's style that defined the later stages of his career. During this period, the artist was at the pinnacle of his creative output and revisited his earlier travels to Bali and Sarawak.

Offering a fresh portrayal of the humanistic charm of Southeast Asia, the work portrays two Sarawakian sisters with exaggerated slender bodies and almond-shaped eyes, drawing inspiration from Indonesian shadow puppetry as well as modern painters such as Modigliani and Giacometti. 

Southeast Asian Modern & Contemporary Art

Joan Yip | Senior Specialist and Head of Sale of Southeast Asian Modern and Contemporary Art, Bonhams

Indicative of the rising demand for Southeast Asian art that the market is witnessing, the white glove single-owner sale titled Legends of Vietnamese Art from Findlay to Borynack saw all twelve works by acclaimed modern Vietnamese masters Le Pho and Vu Cao Dam sell above their high estimates, realising a total of over HK$9 million, nearly doubling the pre-sale low estimate. 

These paintings were acquired directly from the two artists between the 1970s and 1980s by Wally Findlay, a gallerist with a discerning eye who played a pivotal role in helping propel their rise to fame in America. The works later became part of the Findlay Galleries collection when art connoisseur James R. Borynack took over in 1998. 

Standouts from the 100% sold auction include Le Pho's Femmes aux fleurs, which commanded more than twice its low estimate and achieved HK$1.27 million to become the top lot. 

Le Pho (Vietnamese-French, 1907-2001) | Femmes aux Fleurs, Oil on canvas
60 x 73 cm
Sold: HK$1,274,000

When it comes to Southeast Asian art, Le Pho is certainly a name not to be missed. Born in Hanoi in 1907, Le Pho was a classically trained painter who studied at the Fine Arts College of Indochina and was one of the first students to be educated under the tutorage of Victor Tardieu, the school's founder. The French teacher played a crucial role in promoting the creative identity of Vietnamese artists and taught them how to blend their personal histories with Western painting techniques.

In 1931, just one year after graduation, Le Pho was sent to Paris by Tardieu for the Paris Colonial Exposition. It was during this time that he encountered the works of Impressionist masters like Renoir and Monet, which profoundly influenced and inspired his own artistic development. He eventually settled in Paris in 1937. 

Le Pho’s favoured subject matter revolved around what he perceived as beautiful and pleasing to the eye, thereby much of his paintings are visual homages to flora and fauna, and elegant women either alone or accompanied by their children in private interludes as vignettes from family life.

Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art

Gigi Yu | Head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, Bonhams Hong Kong

Sam Shum | Senior Director of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, Bonhams Hong Kong

Earlier this year, Bonhams expanded the leadership of its Chinese Art departments in Asia, building a new, agile senior team to adapt to an evolving market where the current and next generations of collectors intersect.

Sam Shum, a highly respected expert in the field of Chinese ceramics and works of art, joined as Senior Director of the department in Hong Kong. With three decades of industry experience, he has witnessed the remarkable growth of the Chinese art market firsthand.

Since assuming his position, Sam has formed a formidable partnership with Head of Department Gigi Yu, and their collaboration has yielded immediate results. This season, they curated a major auction titled Ko Fook Chuen's Lifelong Passion: Exquisite Chinese Art from the Hall of Refined Elegance.

Demonstrating strong market demand for trusted provenance, the single-owner sale was a resounding success, with over half the lots sold above their high estimates and a notable 80% sell-through rate. Together with the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale held the same day, the department achieved a total of nearly HK$74 million.

A flattened Yixing circular teapot and cover
Incised Da Bin two-character mark
Height: 15.5 cm
Sale: Ko Fook Chuen's Lifelong Passion: Exquisite Chinese Art from the Hall of Refined Elegance

Sold: HK$4,068,000 (135 times its low estimate)

The owner of the esteemed "Hall of Refined Elegance" collection was Ko Fook Chuen (1916-2003), the seventh son of the renowned Hog Kong and Macau entrepreneur and philanthropist Ko Ho Ning. For nearly two decades, from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, he actively participated in bidding at esteemed Hong Kong auction houses, attending seasonally.

Over the years, Ko assembled a collection of over 300 artifacts, spanning from the Neolithic Period to the Republic of China, comprising an extensive range of categories such as porcelain, jade, lacquer, and bronze. The entire collection was meticulously documented and has remained unseen by the public for over half a century. 

Boasting impeccable provenance, the collection garnered heavy interest and strong bidding. This flattened Yixing circular teapot and cover, for instance, soared above 135 times its low estimate to fetch over HK$4 million. 

Incised on the teapot's base are the inscriptions "Da Bin", apparently a hallmark of the famous Yixing potter Shi Dabin of the Ming Dynasty (1573-1619). The master potter rose to prominence during the Wanli period and established himself as the leading master of teapots from Yixing, a city in southern China famous for producing the finest teawares using its traditional clay.

Already a collector's item during his time, Shi’s teaware is acclaimed for its naturalistic style which places great emphasis on simplicity. Such teawares were highly appealed to scholars, aristocrats, and wealthy merchants. Today, only a few of his teapots have survived, and some are even listed as national first-class cultural relics – a testament to their exceptional value. 

An extremely rare copper-red glazed mallet-shaped handled vase
Yongzheng six-character mark of the period
Height: 14.5 cm
Sale: Ko Fook Chuen's Lifelong Passion: Exquisite Chinese Art from the Hall of Refined Elegance
Sold: HK$3,814,000 (doubling its low estimate)

This Yongzheng-reign marked copper-red vase of mallet form with a kui dragon handle appears to be unique, with no other examples recorded. 

The mallet form is likely a novel shape that emerged during the Kangxi period, attributed to the Emperor's revival of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, China's traditional "porcelain city". With a domed-shaped body rising to a cylindrical neck, the form resembles a jingle bell and hence nicknamed "jingle-bell vase" in Chinese. 

Combining innovation and archaism, the vase features a handle of a naturalistic kui-dragon reminiscent of Ming dynasty vessels; the kui dragon itself is a traditional motif commonly found in archaic bronze vessels. 

A magnificent and rare robin's egg-glazed beaker vase, zun
Incised Yongzheng seal mark and of the period
Height: 17.5 cm
Sale: Ko Fook Chuen's Lifelong Passion: Exquisite Chinese Art from the Hall of Refined Elegance
Sold: HK$3,560,000 (doubling its low estimate) 

Developed at imperial kilns under the pioneering direction of Emperor Yongzheng Emperor and the legendary official Tang Ying, who is known to have studied in detail the finest imperial porcelains of the Song dynasty (960 - 1279), the "robin's egg" glaze was created as a reinterpretation of the revered Jun glazes of the Song. 

Hailed as one of the five famous wares of the Song dynasty, Jun ware derives its beauty from the striking and thick opaque glaze of bright blue colouration, an understated splendour that had won the heart of Emperor Yongzheng.

While the traditional "robin's egg" glaze typically features a consistent speckled blue appearance, the glaze found on the present zun showcases a vibrant and variegated range of colours, varying from the distinct silvery purple around the rim to the turquoise hue with violet-red mottles at the neck, further enriched by the "peacock-feather" effect towards the bottom.

An exceptional blue and white 'floral scroll' bottled vase
Qianlong seal mark and of the period
Height: 17.8 cm
Sale: Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art
Sold: HK$4,068,000

Arguably no other type of Chinese ceramics is more iconic than the blue-and-white porcelains, and those produced during early Ming dynasty have always been considered the finest. 

The distinctive colour on blue-and-white porcelains comes from the Smalt or Samarra cobalt imported from Persia, which were scarce ingredients at the time and used in only limited quantities. Rich in iron oxide, these cobalt pigments would yield a glaze with darker blue spots in certain areas of the surface, an effect known as "heaped and piled".

Due to this characteristic, blue-and-white porcelains from these periods were seldom decorated with human figures, but more often with flower and animal motifs – where the different shades of blue would create an effect much like ink painting.  

Emperor Qianlong was known to be a passionate collector of antiques and a great connoisseur of the arts. Paying homage to the revered Ming tradition, the craftsman in the imperial kilns skilfully replicates this technique by strategically applying darker and denser spots of cobalt onto the design.

A white jade 'rope-twist' ring
Song Dynasty or earlier
Diameter: 6.8 cm
Sale: Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art
Sold: HK$2,036,000 (nearly 34 times its low estimate)

With concern over the authenticity and the proper dating of jades offered in the market, ancient jades with illustrious provenance or offered by reputable sources became highly sought-after by collectors and connoisseurs, many a time eliciting fierce bidding wars at auctions.

During this season, the spotlight fell on this white jade "rope-twist" ring dated back to the Song Dynasty or earlier, which fetched nearly 34 times its low estimate. The design featuring intertwined ropes has its roots in the Neolithic era and reached the height of its popularity during the Warring States period. However, the intricate craftsmanship and complex production processes required for rope-twist jades led to their rarity after the Song Dynasty.

What distinguishes this particular piece is its double-ring structure, a feature that is uncommon among jade artifacts from the Warring States period and subsequent periods. The small circular holes interspersed between the two rings are likely intended for threading and suspension purposes.

Fine Chinese Paintings

Jingjing Qiao | Head of Chinese Paintings, Bonhams Hong Kong

Rex Lin | Senior Specialist, Chinese Paintings, Bonhams

Also joining Bonhams' leadership team in Asia was Jingjing Qiao, who has been appointed as Head of Chinese Paintings Department early this year, working closely with Senior Specialist Rex Lin.

Bidding remained robust throughout this season's Fine Chinese Paintings Sale, with the sell-through rate reaching an impressive 80%. Nearly 60% of lots soared above their high estimates, resulting in a sale total of over HK$52 million. Paintings by renowned Chinese artists, including Fu Baozhi, Wu Guangzhong, and Qi Baishi, formed the top 3 lots.

Another highlight from this season is the five private collections that were 100% sold:

  • The auction debut of the Collection of General Zheng Wei-Yuan | 14 lots fetched a combined HK$9,698,020, 2.5 times the low estimate
  • Ko Fook Chuen's Lifelong Passion: Exquisite Chinese Art from the Hall of Refined Elegance | Nine lots fetched a combined HK$1,890,020, over five times the low estimate
  • An Important Private Collection Confucian Elegance - Treasured Works by Pu Ru | Nine lots fetched a combined HK$2,067,200, three times the low estimate
  • Fine Chinese Paintings Formerly in the Collection of Mingzhai | Seven lots fetched a combined HK$718,080, four times the low estimate
  • Two Wang Yiting Works from a Japanese Collection | Total sales achieved three times the low estimate

Fu Baoshi (1904-1965) | Landscape after Shitao's Poem, 1960, Ink and colour on paper, hanging scroll
145 x 86.5 cm
Sold: HK$5,719,000

Painted by the renowned modern Chinese master Fu Baoshi, this landscape was created as a tribute to Shitao, a celebrated monk, calligrapher, and painter who lived centuries before him. 

Despite being born three centuries after the monk's death, Fu Baoshi developed a deep fascination with Shitao. This devotion is reflected in his name, which translates to "embracing Shitao," a deliberate change made by the artist. He dedicated himself to the study of Shitao's work and even published a book titled The Chronology of Monk Shitao in 1948.

This particular artwork is based on a poem written by Shitao during his later years. Fu Baoshi skillfully captures the essence of the poem's scenery through bold brushstrokes, conveying a grand interpretation of the forest and clouds. The foreground of the painting exhibits a measured application of ink and colour, evoking a sense of mistiness in the rural setting.

Beyond paying homage to the monk Shitao from the dynastic era, Fu Baoshi's exceptional skills shine through as he masterfully crafts a painting that depicts a mountaintop covered in lush trees, gently obscured by a haze.

Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010) | Frolicking Fish, 1990, Ink and colour on paper, framed
97 x 122 cm
Sold: HK$4,957,000

"Whenever I am faced with an impasse, I turn to the beauty of natural scenery. In nature, I can express my true emotions to the mountains and rivers, conveying my profound love for the motherland and my people," once remarked Wu Guanzhong.

Wu Guanzhong, one of the most significant Chinese painters of the 20th century, established his reputation through his nostalgic and poetic landscapes, which beautifully blend traditional Chinese and Western ideas and techniques. As his artistic career progressed well into the 1980s and 1990s, he ventured into increasingly abstract styles, breaking free from defined shapes and conventions. By incorporating various dots, lines, and colours, he transcended the reliance on a single dominant image in each artwork.

In this particular piece, Wu Guanzhong's abstract approach and his characteristic emphasis on elements like trees are evident. The three prominent trees in the foreground dominate the composition, while the smaller fish gracefully appear as scattered specks of orange in the background. The rippling effect conveys a profound sense of movement across the interplay of diverse shapes and colours, a defining characteristic of Wu Guanzhong's later works.

Qi Baishi (1864-1957) | Eagle on the Pine, 1939, Ink on paper, hanging scroll
137.2 x 62.4 cm
Sold: HK$2,544,000

Qi Baishi, beyond being one of the great contemporary painters of China, holds immense cultural significance in the country. This recognition was solidified through various political awards and positions bestowed upon him later in his life, establishing him as an invaluable cultural symbol.

The present work, Eagle on the Pine, was created during the later stages of Qi Baishi's career, during which he never stopped honing his skills and techniques as an artist. This piece not only pays homage to his artistic growth but also reflects his connection to his hometown, known for its abundance of pine trees, which frequently appear as a recurring theme in his works.

Eagles often accompany pine trees in Qi Baishi's art, symbolizing heroism, strength, sternness, and tenacity. The level of detail in the painting exemplifies the quality of his work. The eagle is meticulously depicted with its two claws gripping the tree, its beak shut, and its long neck, projecting a bold stance as it gazes out into the vastness of the carefully utilized negative space within the composition.

Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien, 1899-1983) | Lotus, 1974, Ink and colour on paper, framed
111.3 x 53 cm
From the Collection of General Zheng Wei-Yuan

Sold: HK$1,909,000 (three times its low estimate)

Dubbed "The One in 500 Years" in China, Zhang Daqian is not only among China's most famous painters but one of the great worldwide. In the Western art world, Zhang has been hailed as “The Picasso of the East”. While the two twentieth-century masters' painterly styles are distinctly different, they are similar in that they are both chameleon artists adept at a variety of styles, highly innovative yet deeply rooted in traditions, and prodigious in artistic output.

While Zhang Daqian is well-known for his ability to juggle virtually every genre of Chinese painting, the lotus as one of the artist's favourite flowers has remained a recurring theme in his oeuvre, one that he had painted throughout his artistic career spanning more than 60 years. 

Painted in 1974 when Zhang's eyesight deteriorated, Lotus Pond showcases the artist's masterful technique for working with splashed ink during the later stage of his career. Liberating himself from the fine lines and keenly observed details that enriched his early works, he focuses on atmosphere and colour, rather than the depictions of specific scenes, to conjure a vivid view of an elegant lotus pond.

This painting was a gift from Zhang to former General Zheng Wei-Yuan, who was entrusted by President Chiang Ching-Kuo to assist the artist during his relocation to Taiwan. Over the years, Zhang Daqian formed a friendship with General Zheng, and gifted many works of art to the General, including works of calligraphy, a rare engraved stone, and paintings.

Deng Fen (1894-1964) | Bamboo Retreat, 1937, Ink and colour on paper, framed
30.8 x 38.1 cm 
From Ko Fook Chuen's Lifelong Passion: Exquisite Chinese Art from the Hall of Refined Elegance

Sold: HK$956,500 (nearly 20 times its low estimate)

Deng Feng was a Chinese contemporary artist known for his depictions of people amidst the splendour of nature. Born in Guangdong, Deng displayed artistic talent from an early age and garnered high esteem throughout his life. His impressive skills left a lasting impression on government officials and experts wherever he travelled.

His paintings often incorporated Buddhist and musical themes, with recurring motifs of people playing music on pipas amidst nature. However, in Bamboo Retreat, Deng Feng deviates from these motifs and focuses on two women near a house within a bamboo grove.

The relatively small size of the painting accentuates the cramped nature of the grove and the density of the bamboo leaves. Despite this, Deng Feng pays meticulous attention to detail in depicting the house and the two individuals within it. Through skilful employment of traditional Chinese painting techniques, he captures the essence of their figures.