This spring auction season was without doubt an unforgettable one.
Due to the pandemic outbreak, there were a lot of firsts set in Hong Kong auction this season: the first time China Guardian Hong Kong cancelled all spring sales while Poly Auction partially withdrew; the first time for the Hong Kong spring sales to be postponed to July, and the first time the three major international auction houses, namely Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips, rolled out their auction series in the same week.
Though the line-ups were not as strong as those of previous seasons, three auction houses together achieved a solid total sale of HK$5.5billion (US$706.7million) in the seven-day auction marathon, giving a strong boost to the beleaguered art market.
There was a decline in sale total compared with the pre-COVID sale figures. Yet, the sale performance was reassuring given the impact of the lockdown.
The Value takes an in-depth look at the performances of the three major auction houses in Modern and Contemporary Art and Watches.
Summary of three major auction houses
Results across the three major international auction houses remained robust this season, albeit an inevitable downturn compared to a year ago, and the Modern and Contemporary Art sector was largely to thank. Among the three auction houses, Sotheby’s and Phillips appeared to have been taken a milder hit.
Traditionally speaking, there are two auction seasons each year: spring sales and autumn sales. In recent years, leading auction houses arrange their sales in Hong Kong in different months to avoid a direct face-off. Let's take the spring sales as an example. Sotheby’s customarily holds its spring auction in early April following Art Basel Hong Kong, whereas Christie’s and Phillips hold the sales in May to coincide with International Antiques Fair (IAF).
The coronavirus started sweeping across the globe since January, meaning Sotheby’s should have completed its auction consignment process by that time in preparation for its sales originally scheduled in April. This could be the key factor that the auction house was able to maintain both the quality and quantity in its line-up for sale.
Propelled by a solid team of specialists, Sotheby’s fared well across most categories. Total sales for the season surpassed HK$3billion for the seventh year in a row, cementing the auction house's leading position in Asia.
Phillips and Christie’s, however, faced tougher tests as they initially scheduled their auctions in May.
Phillips had a milder hit this season since its business focuses more on Modern and Contemporary Art as well as Watches, unlike most traditional auction houses selling diverse art categories. It successfully upheld the standard of its line-up of artwork and achieved a whopping 99% of sell-through rate at its watch sale.
Christie’s, on the other side of the fence, was harder hit by the pandemic on all fronts. The offering for this spring sales was significantly reduced to about half of its scale from last year. The other half of its overall items on offer went online or sold through private sales in response to the ongoing pandemic.
Going digital seems to be the best way forward for auction houses, large and small. This season, only 10% of items offered at Sotheby’s went to room bidders, while online bidding registration for Christie’s Modern and Contemporary Art sales was up by 75%. As for Phillips, around 50% of the lots from its Watch category, including half of the top ten, went to online bidders.
Modern and Contemporary Art
Unlike Chinese Works of Art and Paintings and Calligraphy, forgery is rarely a problem in the Modern and Contemporary Art market. In most cases, viewing the items in person prior to bidding is not necessary when looking at high-res images and videos from online catalogues would suffice.
Momentum for the Modern and Contemporary Art category had been building since the beginning of this year with an exceptional online sale all the way to the New York sale in June, and it showed no sign of abating.
Together, the three leading auction houses delivered 11 auctions of Modern and Contemporary Art, all concluded with a hammer price above low estimates.
The sector raked in a respectable HK$2.9b this season, with several artworks crossing the 100-million mark and setting new auction records for artists. It was a modest drop from the equivalent sales last year (HK$3.2b in spring and HK$3.1b in fall), but still a knockout result given the pandemic outbreak.
(Note that the term of the category varies between three auction houses. It is called Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie’s and 20th Century & Contemporary Art and Design at Phillips, whereas at Sotheby’s the sector is divided into three divisions namely Modern Asian Art, Contemporary Art and Modern & Contemporary Southeast Asian Art. )
The combined low estimates this season (HK$1.1b) overshadowed last year’s spring and autumn sales, which stood at HK$893m and HK$947m. It demonstrates the auction house's impressive work in getting high-quality consignments.
The category raked in HK$170m, snatching up 52% of Sotheby’s total sale (HK$3.2b) this auction season.
In recent years, all eyes have been fixed on Sanyu, a Chinese-French artist hailed as "the Chinese Matisse". His 1952 painting Quatre nus fetched a staggering HK$258m, having become the second highest-priced work by the artist ever sold at auction. Two of his rare oil paintings on mirror, Femme nue étendue (1929) and Panier de poires (1930s), also went for a combined HK$16m.
Another highflier was Chu Teh-Chun’s 1983 abstract Les éléments confédérés, the only pentaptych ever produced in his lifetime, which sold for a record HK$113m.
At its Contemporary Art evening sale, David Hockney’s 30 Sunflowers sold for HK$114m, having become the second highest price for any Western art sold at auction in Asia. The sale reaffirmed Sotheby’s leading position in bringing Western Art to Asia.
Meanwhile, demand for Chinese painter Liu Ye remained steadfast. His Leave Me In The Dark leapt (2008) – the largest figure painting ever available for auction – leapt well beyond estimate and sold for an impressive HK$45.4m.
In light of the pandemic, Christie’s presale estimate of HK$590m paled in comparison to last year’s spring and autumn auction seasons, which stood at HK$890m and HK$974m, respectively.
Yet, bidding remained fierce, particularly at the day sale, which grossed a total HK$967m, more than twice its presale estimates.
Christie’s HK$607m evening sale was also led by Sanyu, whose White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardinière drew HK$191m, having set a new record for the artist's still life.
Meanwhile, an imposing landscape abstract by Zao Wou-Ki, dubbed 18.11.66, also brought in HK$114m, marking the second million-dollar sale for the auction house.
Western paintings also fared well this season. George Condo’s Force Field (2010), for instance, contributed some HK$53m to Christie’s Hong Kong saleroom at the ONE: A Global Sale of the 20th Century auction. It was a record-breaking sale for the artist.
The HK$3.2billion auction marked Christie’s first-ever global live sale that took place in consecutive sessions in Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York. Not only did Hong Kong kick off the four-city auction, but also became the only saleroom securing the evening sale timeslot. It perfectly manifests the importance Christie's has placed on Asia market.
There is just one catch. Zao Wou-Ki’s 21.10.63, one of the largest works in his explosive “Hurricane Series”, surprisingly went unsold.
Founded in London in 1796, Phillips already traded hands several times with erratic business directions. It wasn’t until recent years that the auction house underwent a brand facelift with a new focus on Modern and Contemporary Art and Watches and Jewels, a strategy that has carved out a niche in the market.
Fueled by strong results in its Modern and Contemporary Art segment, Phillips has been put alongside Sotheby’s and Christie’s in mainstream media as the three top international auction houses.
A newcomer to the Asia market with only five years of experience, Phillips’ sales have been climbing steadily driven primarily by Asian buyers.
The sale last week, combining day and evening sections, leapt beyond its moderate presale estimate of HK$207m (close to last year’s HK$209m) to achieve HK$272m – the highest total ever achieved for an auction series in this category at Phillips Asia.
Leading the 22-lot sale were two abstracts by Zao Wou-Ki – 22.6.63 and 24.10.63 – which sold for a staggering HK$54m and HK$46m respectively. Combined, the two paintings hit the hundred million dollar mark, snatching up half of the total evening sales.
Another strong price was set for Girl! (2004) by Liu Ye, which sold for an impressive HK$7.8m and stole the spotlight at Phillips' day sale.
Bidding remained active even amid pandemic; but still, slimmed-down consignments combined with a rush of new online watch sales weighed on the sales momentum this season.
Three auction houses combined generated total revenue of HK$389m in the Watch category, falling short of last year’s spring and autumn auction sales, which stood at HK$490m and HK$421m, respectively.
The drop could be on one hand attributed to the scale-down of consignments at this trying period; and on the other, a higher portion of consignments was allocated to online sales, which led to shrinking scale for lots offered at the live auction.
Even so, the sector hardly skipped a beat thanks to robust online bidding. At Phillips watches sale, online buyers participated in 93% of overall biddings, while half of the auction items, including the top ten lots, sold to online bidders.
Meanwhile, Sotheby’s saw an 80% sell-through rate, slightly above last fall’s 79%; meanwhile, Phillips achieved a whopping 99%, and Christie’s slightly slipped from 87% last fall to this season’s 81%.
The auction house had held 15 Watches Weekly online auctions between April and July. The total estimates of the past two seasons were in excess of HK$100m, while this season fell to HK$87m.
The leading lot this season was a Rolex with lapis lazuli hardstone dial, which sold for HK$25.4m - more than five times its presale estimate. The lot took up more than 20% of the HK$117m total sale, setting a new record for self-winding Daytona wristwatch.
Last autumn, Christie’s Patek Philippe ref.2523 pink gold two-crown world time wristwatch brought in a record HK$70m to its Hong Kong saleroom, making it the most expensive wristwatch ever auctioned in Asia. This timepiece alone accounted for one-third of the HK$207m total sale.
This season, Christie's presented "The Titanium and Ruby Collection”, the most valuable single-owner collection of Patek Philippe timepieces ever offered in Asia, with a total low estimate of HK$83.4m (US$10.7m). The pre-sale estimate actually came close to last fall's one, and HK$43.6m higher than those of last spring.
Battered by the pandemic, this season’s sale brought in a lacklustre HK$164m. The leading lot - a one-of-a-kind Patek Philippe titanium ref. 5033 - went for HK$15m, accounting for less than 10% of the total sale, albeit a new record for the ref. 5033 family.
Timepiece sale has always been Phillips’ strong suit. Yet, no items sold above HK$10m this season. Blame can perhaps be attributed to its slimmed-down consignments.
Although the presale estimates of HK$70m was lower than the previous two seasons, a flurry of intense bidding ramped up the total sale, achieving HK$109m in the end.
The sale was led by a Patek Philippe ref. 2499/100 yellow gold perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatch, which sold for HK$4.7m. It carried a presale estimate of HK$3.5m to HK$5m.
In a nutshell, the three auction houses excelled in both the Modern and Contemporary Art as well as Watches sectors not only in Hong Kong but also on a global scale.
Rarely do the two categories faced with counterfeiting problem, and auction items are also viewable online via high-resolution images and videos as well as condition reports prior to the sale. These two factors laid the groundwork for a robust online bidding environment, which were the catalysts for the strong sales this season despite thinner crowds in the auction room.