April’s Top Ten Hammers in Hong Kong Spring Auctions that Reaped Over US$178m, Driven by Asia’s Strong Demand for Western Artworks

While the global art industry is still in recovery mode, Hong Kong has proven to be a resilient market despite the ongoing travel ban. Led by the modern and contemporary art sector, in particular, the first half of the Hong Kong spring auction that took place in April already set the bar high for the season.

Among the top ten seven-figure works, which totaled over US$178.6m, Western artworks secured four spots, against two Chinese antiques on the list, highlighting Asia’s burgeoning appetite for Western art. 

Nine out of the top ten lots were auctioned off at Sotheby’s Hong Kong sales, with the house's rival Christie’s marquee sales being just around the corner, keen collectors and art enthusiasts alike are bound to see more high-caliber artworks on their way.

Hong Kong's top ten highest hammers in April are as follows:

Top 1 | Chu Teh-chun (1920-2014), Harmonie Hivernale

Oil on canvas (triptych)

Signed in Chinese and Pinyin, dated 86; signed in Chinese and Pinyin, titled in French, dated 1986 on the reverse 

Dimension: 193 x 384.7 cm


  • Important Private European Collection

Auction house: Sotheby’s 

Estimate: HK$80,000,000 - 120,000,000

Hammer price: HK$198,000,000

Price realized: HK$229,568,000 (US$29,576,000)


Often hailed as the “Three Musketeers” of Chinese Modern Art, Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-chun, and Wu Guanzhong are known to be the pioneers of their generation, to interweave traditional Chinese paintings with Western abstractionism.

Among the three esteemed artists, Chu’s blue-chip status often trailed far behind his fellow contemporaries, that was until this month, when his triptychs raked in a whopping HK$229.6m (US$30m) for Sotheby’s Hong Kong and renewed the record of his HK$113.7m (US$14.7m) pentaptych abstract, titled Les éléments confédérés, by a landslide.

Chu Teh-chun’s “Snow Scene” series began in 1985. According to Sotheby’s there are only eight groups of large format polyptychs in the series, with Harmonie Hivernale being one of the only three triptychs. Inspired by the artist’s journey through a snowstorm in the Alps, the present work showcases his mastery of Eastern and Western artistic approaches that conjure enthralling images of wintery skies with heavy snow. 

Top 2 |  Zao Wou-ki (1920-2013), 13.02.62

Oil on canvas signed in Chinese and Pinyin; signed in Pinyin, titled and dated 13.2.62 on the reverse 

Painted in 1962

Dimensions: 129.5 x 161.5 cm


  • Laing Gallery, Toronto
  • Private Collection (Sold: Phillips, London, December 5, 1990, lot 61)
  • Private Collection, Paris
  • Important Private European Collection (Acquired directly from the above in 2003)

Auction house: Sotheby’s 

Estimate: HK$100,000,000 - 150,000,000

Hammer price: HK$140,000,000

Price realized: HK$162,926,000 (US$20,991,000)


Market stalwart Zao Wou-ki came in second with his 1962 abstract, 13.02.62.

During the 1960s, the apex of his career, the abstract master almost exclusively titled his works after their dates of creation. The present work was painted on Zao’s birthday, adding to the significance of the painting. Among the recorded extant works by the artist, very few were created on the same day.

On top of the noticeable central axis running across the canvas - one of the most recognizable characteristics of Zao’s collection completed during his “Hurricane Period,” the present masterpiece also displays traces from his “Oracle Bone Period” in the 1950s, where the spirituality of ancient Chinese inscriptions shines through the dashing ink-black brushstrokes and the palette of bright red and silvery white.

Top 3 | The Qianlong Emperor’s “Jientang” white jade seal

Qing dynasty, Qianlong period, dated to the Bingxu year (1766)

Inscription: Jientang (紀恩堂)

Dimensions: 10.4 x 10.4 x 7.8 cm

Provenance: (Organized by The Value)

  • A French collection
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, November 2, 1994, lot 408
  • An American private collection
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, October 31, 2004, lot 3 (price realized: HK$14,002,400/ US$1,804,321)

Auction house: Sotheby’s 

Estimate: HK$125,000,000 - 180,000,000

Hammer price: HK$125,000,000

Price realized: HK$145,691,000 (US$18,770,000)


A Chinese antique object that placed high on our list is an imperial white jade seal that fetched HK$145.7m (US$18.8m). Though quite a number of the important lots in the sale did not do so well, lagging far behind the modern and contemporary art sector.

The seal was carved by the order of Qing Emperor Qianlong (r.1735-1796) in remembrance of where he met his grandfather, Emperor Kangxi, for the first time. 

An imperial poem is carved on the side of the seal dates back to 1766. It begins with Emperor Qianlong’s recollection and fond memories of his grandfather Emperor Kangxi as well as the significance of abiding by "the Mandate of Heaven to rule" - a philosophical and political idea originated from the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), which believed in the divine authority of emperorship and a legitimate ruler's key responsibility to care for his people.

The second half of the poem takes a sudden turn, where Emperor Qianlong expressed his self-doubt in face of the opposing forces in the imperial court.

Top 4 | Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Buste de matador

Oil on canvas

Dated 27.9.70 IV on the reverse

Dimensions: 130 x 97 cm


  • Estate of the artist 
  • Collection of Marina Picasso, France (By descent from the above)
  • Collection of William H. Van Every, Jr. (Sold by the estate: Sotheby's, New York, November 11, 1988, Lot 69)
  • Private European Collection (Acquired directly from the above sale and sold: Sotheby's, London, 22 June 2010, Lot 26)
  • Private European Collection (Acquired directly from the above sale)
  • Acquired directly from the above by the present important private American collector

Auction house: Sotheby’s 

Estimate: HK$100,000,000 - 150,000,000

Hammer price: HK$120,000,000

Price realized: HK$139,946,000 (US$18,030,000)


Picasso’s works are often seen in the auction block in London and New York but not so much in Asia. From Picasso’s late period, the self-portrait depicting the artist as a bullfighter was sold for HK$140m (US$18m) to become Picasso’s new auction record in Asia.

At the age of eight, Picasso was taken to his very first bullfight. The iconic Spanish tradition had since then, became a lifelong fascination for Picasso. 

The fashion portrait presented in the sale, titled Buste de matador, was painted in 1970, when the artist was 89. In that year, he attended his last bullfight in Fréjus. The very subject matter of bullfighting witnessed the shift from Picasso’s youthful passion for the sport, to a much deeper understanding of time and life. 

Top 5 | Hongren (1610-1664), Landscapes and Calligraphies

Ink and color on paper, album of 19 leaves

  • Sotheby’s New York, Fine Chinese Paintings, June 3, 1986, lot 57

Auction house: Sotheby’s 

Estimate: HK$45,000,000 - 55,000,000

Hammer price: HK$110,000,000

Price realized: HK$128,456,000 (US$16,550,000)


During the Qing conquest of the Ming, Hongren (1610-1664) emerged as one of the four great monk painters of the early Qing dynasty, alongside Zhu Da, Shitao, and Kun Can.

The rocks and mountains in the present album are expressed in a sparse and austere manner, relying primarily on contour lines to render volume and form, with little interior texturing. The landscapes come with companion pages of calligraphy, in elegant kaishu regular script, and occasionally with xingshu running script. 

Top 6 | Clyfford Still, PH-568

Oil on canvas

Signed, dated 1965 and numbered PH-568 on the reverse; dated 1965 and numbered PH-568 on the overlap

Dimensions: 285.1 x 226.7 cm


  • The artist
  • Marlborough Gallery, New York (acquired directly from the artist in 1969)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Auction house: Sotheby’s 

Estimate: HK$105,000,000 - 145,000,000

Hammer price: HK$108,000,000

Price realized: HK$126,158,000 (US$16,254,000)


Clyfford Still was among one of the foremost figures of American Abstract Expressionism. He began his explorations into Surrealist-tinged abstraction of the late 1930s to early 1940s.

Having spent his youth between Bow Island, Canada and Washington, the US, Still moved to New York in 1944 but eventually withdrew from the city’s over-commercialized art scene in pursuit of a more individualized practice in 1951 and relocated to a quaint town in Maryland in 1961. That explains why Still’s artworks are among the rarest finds in the market, in comparison to his contemporaries, with most of his works residing in the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.

During the cross-city sale, the present work seemed to have created little spark in the saleroom. It was sold to a New York-based bidder, who was seemingly the guarantor of the work. Could this be an indicator that the artist still has yet to gain ground in Asia?

Top 7 | Yoshitomo Nara (b.1959), Berlin Barack, Room 1
Executed in 2007
Mixed media installation

  • Galerie Zink, Berlin, Germany
  • Christie’s Hong Kong, May 26, 2012, lot 2041
  • Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

Dimensions: 263 x 317 x 279 cm

  • Yoshitomo Nara, Hothouse Doll, Painted in 2007, acrylic on canvas, 146 × 130.5 cm; and
  • Yoshitomo Nara, Three Sisters (Berlin Version), Executed in 2007, acrylic on wood panel, 102.5 × 183 cm

Auction house: Poly
Estimate on request
Hammer price: HK$100,000,000
Price realized: HK$120,000,000 (US$15,460,000)

Since 1984, house has been a recurring symbol in Nara’s work. Berlin Barack, Room 1 is a phenomenal house installation that converges such elements as children, music, little girls, and house. 

The two acrylic paintings embedded - Hothouse Doll and Three Sisters (Berlin Version) showcase the artist’s creative focus that spans over three decades and are presented in the unique space and ambience that the installation creates. The present lot - acquired by an online bidder, now stands as the artist's second highest auction record, trailing behind his US$25m Knife Behind Back.

Top 8 | Gerhard Richter, Schwefel (Sulphur)

Oil on canvas

Signed, dated 1985 and numbered 573-1 on the reverse

Dimensions: 200.3 x 300.5 cm


  • Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
  • Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, New York
  • Private Collection, New York
  • Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco / Schönewald Fine Arts, Xanten
  • Private Collection
  • Sotheby's, New York, November 14, 2018, lot 37
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Auction house: Sotheby’s 

Estimate: HK$80,000,000 - 100,000,000

Hammer price: HK$101,000,000

Price realized: HK$118,115,000 (US$15,217,000)


The massive painting was created in 1985, over a period of several months. It marks the genesis of the artist’s iconic "Abstrakte Bilder" series. The painting bursts with exuberant color, gestural dynamism and compositional complexity.

Richter's entirely abstract vernacular first emerged in 1977, building upon the artist’s earlier photo-realist works produced in the previous decade. His coveted Abstraktes Bild (649-2) was sold for US$27.6m, a record at the time for a Western artwork publicly sold in Asia.

Top 9 | Roy Lichtenstein, Reflections on Thud!

Oil and magna on canvas

Painted in 1990

Dimensions: 139.7 x 244 cm


  • Leo Castelli Gallery, New York 
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1990

Auction house: Sotheby’s 

Estimate: HK$78,000,000 - 108,000,000

Hammer price: HK$94,000,000

Price realized: HK$110,072,000 (US$14,181,000)


Reflections on Thud! is one of the works from Lichtenstein’s important series of "Reflections Paintings," which he began in 1988 and completed in 1993. The oil and magna on canvas work is rendered in immaculate striations of the artist’s signature Ben-Day dots, which mimics comic strips to denote gradients and texture.

The subject matter T-rex is interrupted by the visual effect of a reflective glass. It also compels viewers to the disrupted image while also keeping them at bay, heightening the intriguing viewing experience. 

Though the present artwork, wi

Top 10 | Sanyu, Nu avec un pékinois 

Oil on masonite

Signed in Chinese and French

Painted in 1950s

Dimensions: 84 x 122 cm


  • Collection of Pamela Forrest, Paris
  • Lin & Keng Gallery, Taipei
  • Important Private Asian Collection

Auction house: Sotheby’s 

Estimate: HK$100,000,000 - 150,000,000

Hammer price: HK$90,000,000

Price realized: HK$105,476,000 (US$13,589,000)


Hailed as “Chinese Matisse,” Sichuan-born Sanyu’s paintings are some of the highly sought-after works in the modern art market.

Painted in the 1950s and measuring 84 by 122 cm, Nu avec un pékinois features two of the three most favored subjects in Sanyu’s works, namely flowers, animals and nudes. The present work captures the intimate connection between a nude woman in repose and her dog.

According to Sanyu’s collected essays, he created only three oil paintings featuring nude figures and dogs. A comparable work titled Deux Nus Sur Tapis Rouge, which now resides in Taiwan’s National Museum of History.