US$9m Richter abstract to take centre stage at Sotheby’s Hong Kong contemporary evening auction

The art world is full of excitement for Sotheby’s autumn sales as the auction house is celebrating its 50 anniversary in Asia, presenting a discerning selection of masterpieces. Its highly-anticipated Contemporary Evening Sale on 5 October will bring artworks by both Western and Eastern masters.

Taking center stage of the sale is a 1994 abstract painting by Gerhard Richter, which made its debut at the artist’s acclaimed Anthony d’Offay Gallery exhibition. The work last hit the auction block in 2012, selling for £9.9 million (around US$15.5 million) at Christie's London.

More than a decade later, perhaps influenced by a cooling art market, it now carries a more conservative estimate of HK$70 million (US$9 million), and is backed by an irrevocable bid.

Lot 1208 | Gerhard Richter | Abstraktes Bild, Oil on canvas
Created in 1994
250 x 200 cm
Provenance (Edited by The Value):

  • Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London
  • Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above in 1996)
  • Christie's London, 14 February 2012, Lot 25 (£9,897,250)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner 

Estimate: HK$70,000,000 - 100,000,000 (US$9 - 12.8 million)

Walking from photo-realism to abstraction, Richter remains one of the top living contemporary artists, with a creative career of more than 60 years. 

In the 1980s, having interrogated the limits of representation for decades, he pioneered a completely new stylistic direction with an innovative tool: a homemade hard-edged plastic squeegee. 

His creative process then became not one of addition, but rather of subtraction, where he methodically disturbs, conceals and scraps layers of detailed under-paintings by dragging a squeegee across the canvas, creating abstracts of mesmerising dynamism and immense details.

Claude Monet | Water Lilies (1906) | Permanent collection of Art Institute Chicago

Detail of the present lot

In a magnificent large format of 250 by 200 cm, the present Abstraktes Bild was created in 1994, when the German master had reached the pinnacle of stylistic maturity. With its shimmering emerald greens, sapphire blues and piercing reds, the painting immediately brings to mind the work of Monet and his Nymphéas.

Though entirely disconnected from references in both method and conception, Richter’s abstractions nevertheless evoke natural forms and colour configurations. The subtle layers of pigment and resonant accumulation of colour engendered by the squeegee impart a textural surface reminiscent of myriad natural forms: sunsets, sunrises, shoals, riptides, and cresting waves.

The painting was included in the 1995 exhibition, Gerhard Richter: Painting in the Nineties, at Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London – a widely acclaimed show which showcased works that now reside in important institutional collections around the world, including the collections of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Tate London, and Tokyo's National Museum of Modern Art, among others.

Abstraktes Bild (809-3) (1994) | Collection of Tate, London

Red (821) (1994) | Collection of The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo

Lot 1206 | Julie Mehretu | Untitled, Acrylic, ink and graphite on canvas, in 2 parts
Created in 2001
Overall: 182.8 x 487.6 cm; Each: 182.8 x 243.8 cm
Provenance (Edited by The Value):

  • Project Gallery, New York
  • Private Collection, London
  • Carlier | Gebauer, Berlin
  • Private Collection
  • Christie's New York, 10 November 2015, Lot 47B (Sold: US$2,285,000)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$60,000,000 - 80,000,000 (US$7.7 - 10.3 million)

Among Mehretu's most important and most ambitious works, Untitled is a cacophonous amalgamation of ancient civilizations and futuristic empires, representing a pivotal work in the artist's oeuvre.

The artist's auction record was set in 2021 when Dissident Score (2019–21) fetched US$6.5 million at Artsy, eclipsing the HK$44.2 million (US$5.6 million) paid for her Black Ground (Deep Light) at Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2019. Backed by an irrevocable bid with a low estimate of HK$60 million (US$7.7 million), the present work will almost certainly set a new artist's auction record. 

Considered one of the most important artists of her generation, Mehretu is committed to the politics of abstraction, constructing an incendiary cartography that evokes atlas illustrations, architectonic assemblages, palatial balustrades and weather maps.

Conceiving her work in globalised terms, Mehretu draws from diverse historical movements as well as her own disparate heritage when constructing her fragmented cityscapes. Born in Ethiopia, raised in Michigan, educated in Senegal and Rhode Island, and now based between New York and Berlin, her paintings are built from the juxtaposition of different styles of marking, each with their own character, identity and history.

Julie Mehretu

Dissident Score (2019-2021), 274.3 x 304.8 cm | Sold: US$6.5 million, Artsy, 2021 (Auction record for the artist)

Black Ground (deep light) (2006), 182.9 x 243.8 cm | Sold: HK$44,209,000, Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2019 

Since the late 1990s, Mehretu began employing architectural drawings, terrain maps and construction blueprints as both formal and conceptual tools within her abstract lexicon, generating an intricate visual vocabulary compellingly rooted in social, historical and geographic commentary: global population shifts, mobilised armies, urban mapping and structural planning.

Mehretu’s Untitled is an expansive compendium of coalescing geometric forms and art historical references that theatrically embody the chaos of contemporary life. 

Testifying to the calibre of this expansive work, Untitled was included in the 8th Baltic Triennial of International Art in 2002, as well as the Casino 2001: 1st Quadriennale voor Hedendaagse Kunst at Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst in 2002. It was last sold at Christie's New York in 2012 for US$2.3 million.

Lot 1211 | Willem de Kooning | Souvenir of Toulouse, Oil on canvas
Created in 1958
160 x 125.7 cm

  • Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
  • Collection of Thomas B. Hess, New York
  • Sotheby's, New York, 8 May, 1990, Lot 43
  • Gagosian Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1995

Estimate: HK$50,000,000 - 70,000,000 (US$6.4 - 8.9 million)

Joining the prominent selection of the evening auction is a rare work by Willem de Kooning. Souvenir of Toulouse, executed in 1958, could fetch HK$50 million (US$6.4 million). It emerges from a private collection after almost three decades, making it a rare gem in Asian auctions.

Executed during de Kooning’s critical years of 1957 to 1959, the present work derives from an important period of transition in the artist’s career during which de Kooning started to turn his focus away from New York City.

In 1957, de Kooning began to frequently shuttle between New York City and Long Island, drawing inspiration from the motorways; his paintings of the late 1950s reflect the landscape as seen from a moving car, evoking the subjective vision of blurred horizons, fields, and roads.

These works, which the critic Thomas B. Hess later described as the “Abstract Parkway Landscapes”, were some of the most gesturally expressive paintings de Kooning had made to date.

The present work was installed in the exhibition de Kooning, Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, 1959

Merritt Parkway (1959) | Detroit Institute of Arts

A Tree In Naples (1960) | Museum of Modern Art, New York

The “abstract parkway landscapes” were first exhibited at the artist’s third one-person show at Sidney Janis Gallery on 4 May 1959, showcasing 22 abstract works on paper and on canvas. The exhibition was an immediate and resounding hit with critics and collectors alike, with visitors lining up outside the door from 8:15 a.m.; 19 works sold by noon; and the three remaining sold by the end of the week.

And Souvenir of Toulouse was bought by Thomas B. Hess – an influential figure in the art world who was an early and ardent champion of Abstract Expressionism; friend and proponent of de Kooning; and author of numerous of the artist’s monographs – and remained in his collection until after his death, testament to the importance of the present work as a signature example from this pivotal period in de Kooning’s inimitable career.

Today, not only do paintings on canvas from this series belong to museum collections such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but comparable works on paper from 1957 to 1958 are also held in other museum collections as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 1213 | Yayoi Kusama | Infinity-Nets (QOZXS), Acrylic on canvas
Created in 2006
208.2 x 204.4 cm

  • Robert Miller Gallery, New York
  • Private Collection, London
  • Christie’s, New York, 14 May 2009, Lot 184
  • Private Collection, Korea
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$30,000,000 - 50,000,000

Lot 1210 | Yoshitomo Nara | Our Thai House Mini, Wooden house structure, two wooden chairs and a bench, an acrylic on wood panel, an acrylic on cotton mounted on wood panel, two acrylic on canvas, and an electrical light fixture
Created in 2007
88 x 54 x 62.5 cm

  • Provenance:
  • Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo
  • Private Collection, Europe
  • Christie's Hong Kong, 26 November 2017, Lot 255
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000

Lot 1209 | Liu Ye | She and Mondrian, Acrylic on canvas
Created in 2003
120 x 80 cm

  • Schoeni Gallery, Hong Kong 
  • Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2004

Estimate: HK$17,000,000 - 22,000,000

Lot 1212 | Matthew Wong | White Room, Oil on canvas
Created in 2018
172.4 x 152.2 cm

  • Aïshti Foundation, Beirut
  • Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$15,000,000 - 20,000,000

Lot 1204 | Loie Hollowell | Milk Fountain, Oil paint, acrylic medium, sawdust and high-density foam on linen over panel
Created in 2019
182.9 x 137.2 x 8.9 cm

  • Pace Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$13,000,000 - 18,000,000

Lot 1215 | Hao Liang | Shell, Ink and colour on silk
Created in 2010-2011
145.5 x 92 cm

  • Mizuma & One Gallery, Beijing
  • Private Collection
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 30 September 2018, Lot 1060
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 - 22,000,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Contemporary Evening Auction
Date and Time: 5 October 2023 | 8:30 pm (Hong Kong Local Time))
Number of Lots: 26