Korean Wave in Saleroom: HK$102m Kim Whan-Ki’s Diptych Becomes Most Expensive Korean Work of Art

The first day of Hong Kong auction week was full of surprises. Following the sale of Five Nudes by Sanyu that fetched a record HK$303m (US$38.72m), we also witnessed the exhilarating moment when the second artwork crossing the HK$100m benchmark, unexpectedly, fell to a painting by Korean artist Kim Whan-Ki. 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe) was sold for HK$102m (US$13.03m), surpassing its estimate of HK$48m-62m, and became the most expensive Korean work of art.

05-IV-71 #200 (Universe) became world's most expensive Korean work of art

05-IV-71 #200 (Universe) was hammered down for HK$88m

Best known for his works that epitomise archetypal Korean aesthetics, Kim Whan-Ki was a pioneering abstract artist of Korea. He belongs to the first generation of Korean abstract artists, mixing oriental concepts and ideals with abstraction. Following his return to Seoul in 1953, Kim began exploring classical Korean art practices and motifs, referencing, in particular, Joseon-dynasty (1392-1897) white porcelains, Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) celadon, and traditional literati paintings in his work. Kim was interested in capturing the poetic emotion and spirit imbued in the naturalism of Korean aesthetics.

In 1963, Kim Whan-Ki decided to move from Seoul to New York. 1971 was an important year for Kim Whan-Ki as the artist began working on what is widely regarded as his masterpiece, the large-scale painting Universe. Kim Whan-Ki's monumental canvas 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe) is widely regarded to be one of the most important paintings in the artist's oeuvre.

Spanning 254 x 254cm, 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe) is the only diptych that the artist painted, the two canvases suggest duality - sun and moon, light and shadow, man and woman, yin and yang - embodying the contradictory yet complementary forces that drive the world and make up the core energies of the universe. This is also the largest painting that Kim ever created, with the greatest range of blues. These deep cobalt dots are quintessential qualities of the artist's final and most accomplished creative period which spanned from 1970 to 1974.

Whan-Ki was a pioneering abstract artist of Korea

A closer look at 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe)

The diptych was acquired directly from the artist by close friends, Matthew Kim and Chae Kum Kim, and the piece has resided in their private collection for the past 40 years. Estimated at HK$48m-62m, the painting made its auction debut this time at Christie’s Hong Kong since its completion in 1971. Before the sale started, some people expressed concern about the estimate being a little bit too high given that Korean art has just started to make its way into the mainstream.

But it turned out all the risks that Christie’s took has paid off. The painting triggered a prolonged bidding battle that lasted nearly 10 minutes. Two main participants were the telephone bidders respectively represented by Francis Belin, President of Christie’s Asia, and Hak-jun Lee, Christie’s General Manager of Korean Art.

After the auctioneer started the bidding at HK$38m, the price quickly reached HK$63m after 12 bids, exceeding its estimate. Both bidders remained tenacious and continued to offer higher bids all the way up to HK$85m.

Hak-jun Lee, Christie’s General Manager of Korean Art

Francis Belin, President of Christie’s Asia

Francis Belin’s client scared off competitors with the next bid of HK$88m, a bid increment of HK$3m. The strategy proved to be a successful one and brought victory to the bidder. The painting was knocked down at HK$88m and sold for HK$101m after premium, a huge price jump for Korean art at auction. The record-breaking moment excited many Korean reporters and journalists in the saleroom, who were probably here for this painting.

In spite of the rising popularity of Korean culture, Korean art is still trying to make its way into the mainstream in the global art market. The encouraging sale result of Kim Whan-Ki's diptych is undoubtedly a strong boost to Korean art’s prominence in the art and auction market.

Evelyn Lin, International Director & Head of Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art Department

Park Seo-Bo (b.1931), Écriture No. 231-85, 1985|A Narrative of Korean Art: From Celadon to Abstraction and Beyond

Chung Sang Hwa (b.1932), Untitled (87-10-6),1987|A Narrative of Korean Art: From Celadon to Abstraction and Beyond

During a press conference after the evening sale, Evelyn Lin, Head of Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art Department from Christie’s, revealed that it took the collective effort from both Hong Kong and New York teams over the past five years to secure the consignment of 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe).

Recently, Christie’s Hong Kong has been actively tapping into the market for Korean Art. This Februrary, it launched a selling exhibition titled A Narrative of Korean Art: from Celadon to Abstraction and Beyond where it featured approximately 50 specially curated works spanning more than 1,000 years of Korean art history from the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392 CE) to present times. The sale pulled off remarkable results.

Christie’s has placed greater attention to Korean Art after Francis Belin took up the position of President of Christie's Asia. Let’s see how he further push the Korean Wave to the next level in the saleroom, as well as the art market.

Kim Whan-Ki (1931-1974). 05-IV-71 #200 (Universe) | Most expensive Korean Work of Art

Lot no.: 17
Created in: 1971
Size: 254 x 127cm (each panel); 254 x 254 (overall)
Provenance: Purchased directly from the artist by Matthew Kim and Chae Kum Kim
Estimate: HK$48,000,000 - 62,000,000
Hammer price: HK$88,000,000
Price realised: HK$101,955,000

Auction house: Christie’s Hong Kong
Sale: 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Auction date: 23 November 2019