Christie's evening sale garners US$88.9m in HK, anchored by a US$24m Sanyu and hot Japanese artists

On 28 November, Christie's staged two back-to-back evening sales in Hong Kong which pulled in a total of HK$812 million. The first was a thematic auction dedicated to artworks created after 2000. In a special collaboration with "King of Mandopop" Jay Chou, that sale generated HK$118 million. (Read more about the sale here: Romanian art star Adrian Ghenie leads Jay Chou x Christie's Hong Kong US$15.2m Post-Millennium Evening Sale)

Following that was the house's regular 20th/21st Century Art Evening Sale, which saw 46 out of 53 lots on offer sell, yielding HK$693 million (US$88.9 million) with a sell-through rate of 87%. 

The top-selling lot was "Chinese Matisse" Sanyu's fresh-to-market portrait of Kiki de Montparnasse, Nude on Tapestry (1929), fetching HK$187 million (US$24 million). Also sharing the limelight with the late Chinese-French master were the two leading Japanese contemporary artists, Yayoi Kusama and Yoshitomo Nara, whose works took up the second to fourth places in the sale. 

Notably, records were set for four late artists, including Italian Conceptual artist Salvo, and Cheong Soo Pieng, Pratuang Emjaroen, and Thawan Duchanee from Southeast Asia

Sanyu's Nude on Tapestry hammers at HK$160 million (US$20.6 million)

Lot 11 | Sanyu (Chang Yu, 1895 - 1966) | Femme nue sur un tapis (Nude on Tapestry), Oil on canvas
Painted in 1929
81 x 130 cm

  • Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris
  • Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$100,000,000 - 150,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$160,000,000
Sold: HK$187,375,000 (US$24 million)

Auctioneer Liang-Lin Chen opened the bidding on the lot at HK$90 million and attracted two bidders on the phone respectively with Evelyn Lin (Co-Head of the 20th and 21st Century Art Department, Christie's Asia Pacific) and Ada Ong (Deputy Chairman, Asia Pacific and Chairman, Taiwan).

When the price reached the HK$100 million mark, a lady in the saleroom joined the fray, offering a bid of HK$110 million. From there onwards, the bidding increment was lowered to HK$5 million, and it became a bidding war between the in-room bidder and Ong's client. 

While both parties took bids back and forth, the lady seemed determined, swiftly placing counter-bids to win the lot. By HK$1.5 million, this lady with paddle number 9366 jumped it directly to HK$1.6 million and took Sanyu's masterpiece lot home. With fees, the final sum came to HK$187.4 million (US$24 million). 

The lot attracted multiple interest, and Evelyn Lin (upper right) and Ada Ong (lower right) both failed to win the lot

A big name in the Asian art market, Sanyu has continuously pulled off record-smashing results at auctions in recent years. And Christie's Hong Kong is certainly a market leader for Sanyu's works, holding all auction records for his female nude, floral, and animal paintings – the artist's three most prominent subjects.

Out of these three motifs that the artist favored, the female nude is the rarest, with only fifty-six pieces in his oeuvre of three hundred oil paintings.

This Nude on Tapestry, executed in 1929, stands as a true rarity, as it is the master's first major nude painting and the front cover image for The Complete Works of Sanyu Oil Paintings (Volume I), arguably the most historically important publication on the artist.  

For nearly a century, it has remained in private hands; the present sale marked its auction debut. 

Sanyu is hailed as the "Chinese Matisse"

Born in Sichuan during the late 19th century, Sanyu was the doted-on youngest child in an affluent family that owned one of the largest silk-weaving mills in the region. As a kid, his love for art was fully supported by his parents, who arranged for him to home-school lessons with a skilled calligrapher.

Alongside a wave of young Chinese artists who took advantage of a government-sponsored work-study program, Sanyu arrived in Paris in 1921. With economic support from his family, he was unfettered by financial concerns, nor concerned with the pursuit of fame, leading the bohemian life of a Parisian artist. 

Life was easy for Sanyu then: he attended classes at the liberal Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse, whiled away his afternoons in the coffee houses where artists and writers lingered, and brushed shoulders with European creative luminaries such as Alberto Giacometti.

Alice Prin, or Kiki de Montparnasse, played muse to nearly all the leading male avant-garde artists in Paris at the time

Around the same time, there was a model that had captured everyone in Montparnasse: Alice Prin, more popular known as Kiki de Montparnasse. Instantly recognizable by her signature bobbed hair, this woman of multiple interests – a model, singer, actor, painter, and writer – thrust herself into the limelight of the Bohemian art scene and made a name for herself.

Passionate and sometimes intense, the dazzling muse held everyone in the Parisian art circles spellbound: nearly all celebrated male artists of the time have left behind trademark paintings featuring the charming and talented model, such as Man Ray's Le Violon d’Ingres, which made auction history as the most expensive photograph at US$12.4 million last year. 

With her being a wildly sought-after professional model at the time, it came naturally that Sanyu, then a carefree art student in Montparnasse, was captivated by her allure as well.

Unlike any other depictions of the Queen of Montparnasse, Nude on Tapestry (1929) sees the Chinese-French master dress her in a robust body with varied brushwork and suggestions of ink-wash techniques, her nude form akin to a range of undulating hills, demonstrating the artist's unique modern style underlying a deep understanding of traditional Chinese landscape paintings.

Man Ray's photographic image of Kiki de Montparnasse set an auction record for a photo at US$12.4 million at Christie's New York in 2022

Details of the present lot

Lot 15 | Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) | A FLOWER, Acrylic on canvas
Painted in 2014
162.2 x 162.2 cm

  • Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo
  • Private collection, Asia
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$65,000,000 - 85,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$65,000,000
Sold: HK$78,125,000 (US$10 million)

Coming second place in the sale was an iconic floral painting by Yayoi Kusama, one of the best-known contemporary Japanese artists in the world.

With her blockbuster retrospective took place at Hong Kong’s M+ museum early this year and her collaboration with Louis Vuitton all the rage, the Queen of Polka Dots has been brought to the forefront of the local art scene, and her works continue to gather momentum at auctions. 

Heading to the block with a third-party guarantee, the present piece was hammered at US$65 million on an opening bid of US$50 million. With fees, it sold for HK$78.1 million (US$10 million) to Ada Ong's client with paddle number 8356. 

Ada Ong won the lot for her client with paddle number 8356

With its riotous psychedelic colors, vivid patterns, and polka dot motifs, this large-scale floral painting is instantly identifiable as a signature work of Yayoi Kusama. 

For Kusama, the flower is symbolic and representative of her. Coming from a family that owned a plant nursery and seed farms in Japan, the artist has been familiar with plants and flowers since childhood – also the first objects that haunted her vision in her vivid hallucinations of kaleidoscopic patterns. 

Kusama once spoke of a terrifying vision she had as a child: "One day, when I was a little girl, I found myself trembling, all over my body, with fear, amid flowers incarnate, which had appeared all of a sudden. I was surrounded by hundreds of violets in a flower garden. The violets, with uncanny expressions, were chatting among themselves like human beings. No sooner had they and I had spiritual dialogues than I became infatuated with them, drawn into glitter of illusion, away from this world."

The young Yayoi Kusama

Flowers (2015), 130.3 x 97 cm | Sold: HK$58.5 million, Christie's Hong Kong, May 2023

An embodiment of herself, flowers have remained a recurring motif that threads through Kusama’s oeuvre over the last seven decades.

A FLOWER was painted in 2014, the year when she was named the world’s most popular artist following her two major retrospectives. In what marked her core artistic language, she envisions negatives as positives in her process of "self-obliteration", using the technique of her iconic "Infinity Nets" to create a background filled with depth and colour changes, much like the idea of division and reproduction of cells. 

In contrast to her earlier floral paintings, here the vibrant purple dahlia is in full bloom in front of a golden ocean of petals, evoking the universe’s infinite capacity for rebirth in the form of a surrealist still-life. 

The present piece is also captivating in its scale, measuring 162.2 x 162.2 cm. Last season, another piece of her floral painting sold for HK$58.5 million at Christie's Hong Kong. That work measures 130.3 x 97 cm. 

Lot 6 | Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) | PUMPKIN [FBAN], Acrylic on canvas
Painted in 2013
130.3 x 161.5 cm

  • Ota Fine Arts, Singapore
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$38,000,000 - 55,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$38,000,000
Sold: HK$46,355,000

Apart from A FLOWER, Christie's brought to the Asian market the artist's largest red pumpkin painting in the region, PUMPKIN [FBAN]

Opening at HK$30 million, the lot was hammered at HK$38 million to the bidder with paddle number 8395 represented by Emmanuelle Chan (Head of 20th Century Art Day Sale, Christie's Asia Pacific). After fees, it fetched HK$46.4 million (US$6 million), becoming the fourth most expensive lot of the night. 

Emmanuelle Chan won the lot for her client with paddle number 8395

Lot 33 | Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959) | Bad Barber, Acrylic on canvas
Painted in 2000
100 x 90 cm

  • Galerie Zink, Munich
  • Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, Germany
  • Phillips de Pury & Company New York, 7 November 2005, lot 10
  • Private collection
  • Seoul Auction, 23 February 2006, lot 87
  • Private collection, Asia
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$55,000,000 - 85,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$42,000,000
Sold: HK$51,195,000 (US$6.6 million)

Another Japanese artist who has been highly sought after in the Asian art market, Yoshitomo Nara has made a name for himself with his pictures of the Superflat big-eyed little girl. Fetching HK$51.2 million (US$6.6 million), this little girl canvas, Bad Barber (2000), was the second runner-up in the sale. 

One of the most coveted names in the contemporary art scene today, Nara holds an auction record of HK$195 million (US$25 million), set by Knife Behind Back (2000), making him the most expensive artist from Japan. Impressively, six more artworks featuring the little girl have achieved prices exceeding HK$100 million over the years. 

Regarding his works, the artist once said, "They’re really all, I think, self-portraits... These works were born not from confronting the other, but from confronting my own self." While the children in his works are seemingly innocent at first glance, a closer look reveals a darker side to these boys and girls, reflecting the maker's own life journey during different periods. 

Henry Cheng (Client Relationship Manager) won the lot for his client with paddle number 8434

Yoshitomo Nara is the most expensive artist from Japan

Painted in 2000, Bad Barber, like Knife Behind Back, witnessed a pivotal year for the artist as it was when he returned to his homeland after 12 years of solitude in Germany, where he studied art at the prestigious Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and later lived and worked in Cologne. 

That same year, he joined the Superflat exhibition held by Japanese art icon Takashi Murakami. This avant-garde group of Japanese artists used bright colours, patterns, and Japanese cartoon motifs to examine the country’s hyper-marketed and hyper-consumerist culture, which was increasingly mistrusted by Japanese youth. Soon, Nara became known among his peers for his pictures of young children.

And he is particularly good at combining episodes of childhood memories, pop culture images, the music that accompanied his growth, and daily life events to construct emotionally rich, sometimes darkly humorous, personal narratives. Bad Barber, for instance, is an amusing depiction of a less-than-satisfactory haircut experience.

Record-Breaking Lots in the Sale:

Lot 16 | Cheong Soo Pieng (1917-1983) | Nature's Inspiration, Oil on canvas (triptych) (Auction record for the artist)
Painted in 1963
Overall: 127 x 276 cm; each: 127 x 92 cm
Redfern Gallery, London

  • Acquired from the above by the previous owner
  • Private Collection, USA
  • Acquired from the above by the previous owner in the 1980s
  • Private collection, USA
  • Christie's Hong Kong, 24 May 2014, lot 13
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$4,800,000 - 6,800,000
Hammer Price: HK$9,200,000
Sold: HK$11,507,000

Lot 1 | Salvo (1947-2015) | Il Mattino (The Morning), Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Painted in 1994
205 x 327 cm

  • Galerie Kaess-Weiss, Stoccarda
  • Sotheby's Milan, 20 May 2009, lot 48
  • Private collection, Italy
  • Acquired at the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$1,800,000 - 2,800,000
Hammer Price: HK$6,900,000
Sold: HK$8,694,000

Lot 48 | Thawan Duchanee (1939-2014) | Scream of Sorrowful, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Painted in 1968
200 x 236 cm

  • Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

Estimate: HK$3,800,000 - 5,800,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,800,000
Sold: HK$6,048,000

Lot 49 | Pratuang Emjaroen (1935-2022) | The Symphony of the Universe, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Painted in 1971
143 x 133 cm

  • Collection of Sathien Sathirasut (acquired directly from the artist)
  • Private collection, Thailand (acquired from the above by the previous owner)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$3,800,000 - 6,800,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,800,000
Sold: HK$6,048,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Christie's Hong Kong
Sale: 20th/21st Century Art Evening Sale
Date: 28 November 2023
Number of Lots: 53
Sold: 46
Unsold: 7
Sale Rate: 87%
Sale Total: HK$693,894,800