Anchored by Nara's little girl painting, Phillips' Hong Kong Evening Sale brings in US$24.2 million

On 6 October, Phillips Hong Kong presented an Evening Sale of 20th Century & Contemporary Art that brought in HK$190 million (US$24.2 million) at its new Asian headquarters in West Kowloon District. 

Of the 23 lots on offer, only one failed to sell, representing a strong sell-through rate of 96%. The most expensive lot was Japanese star artist Yoshitomo Nara's fresh-to-market No Mean No, which sold for HK$65 million (US$8.4 million) with fees; while the second place went to Swiss rising artist's iconic still life painting, Still Life with an Olive, which realised HK$25.8 million (US$3.3 million).

Other lots that sold for above HK$10 million included Chinese artist Liu Ye's large-scale The End of Baroque and Gerhard Richter's squeegee abstract Abstraktes Bild (456-2)

Lot 8 | Yoshitomo Nara | No Means No, Acrylic on canvas
Created in 2006
162.5 x 130.8 cm

  • Galerie Zink, Berlin
  • Private Collection, Michigan (acquired from the above in 2007)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$52,000,000 - 72,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$54,000,000
Sold: HK$65,530,000 (US$8.4 million)

Auctioneer Jonathan Crockett (Chairman Asia and Head of 20th Century and Contemporary Art of Phillips Asia) opened bidding for the star lot at HK$40 million and quipped, "It's a very attractive price."

The work received interest from two telephone bidders: one represented by Isaure de Viel Castel, Head of Department, 20th Century & Contemporary Art; the other with Meiling Lee, Senior International Specialist, 20th Century and Contemporary Art Department, Taipei.

In the end, Isaure de Viel Castel won the work for her client with paddle number 1020 with a final bid of HK$54 million. With fees, it fetched HK$54 million (US$8.4 million).

Auctioneer Jonathan Crockett, Chairman Asia and Head of 20th Century and Contemporary Art of Phillips Asia

Isaure de Viel Castel won the lot for her client with paddle number 1020

Yoshitomo Nara has been highly sought after in the Asian art market, with his painting Knife Behind Back setting an auction record at HK$195 million (US$25 million), making him the most expensive artist from Japan. Up to this day, Nara's paintings featuring the little girl motif continue to demonstrate strong market performance, with seven artworks achieving prices exceeding HK$100 million.

In March of this year, Phillips held its inaugural evening sale at the new Asian headquarters, headlined by Nara's little girl painting. The 1995 artwork titled Lookin' for a Treasure changed hands for HK$83.85 million (US$10.7 million), acquired by Rebecca Wei, Founding Partner of the renowned gallery LGDR & Wei in Asia (formerly known as Lévy Gorvy).

Yoshitomo Nara

Knife Behind Back (2000) sold for a staggering HK$195 million

Lookin' for a Treasure (1995) changed hands for HK$83.85 million at Phillips this past March

When comparing the aforementioned two artworks with No Means No, which will be auctioned in October, the most noticeable differences lie perhaps in the depiction of the little girl's eyes and the background color.

Regarding the portrayal of the girl's eyes, Nara once described, "They say human eyes are the mirror of the soul, and I used to draw them too carelessly. Say, to express the anger, I just drew some triangular eyes. I drew obviously angry eyes, projected my anger there, and somehow released my pent-up emotions. About ten years ago, however, I became more interested in expressing complex feelings in a more complex way. I began to stop and think, to take a breath before letting everything out."

This statement reflects the evolution of Nara's artistic approach. Looking back at Nara's artworks from the 1990s, they predominantly featured solid lines and simple colors to depict the physical bodies and facial features of his characters. Knife Behind Back and Lookin' for a Treasure are examples of this style.

As the new millennium arrived, Nara's artworks adopted softer color blocks and lines, expressing intricate and complex emotions. In a more complex manner, he portrayed a profound sense of ambiguity and poetic ethereality within the protagonist's eyes, as seen in this 2006 painting No Means No.

Yoshitomo Nara | After the Deluge (2006), | 162.5 x 145 cm | Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

Yoshitomo Nara | No Means No (1991) | 20.7 x 14.6 cm | Collection of Aomori Museum of Art

In addition to the little girl's eyes, the background colors are also noteworthy. In No Means No, Nara employs his signature gradient technique. Upon closer inspection, within the pearl-white background, there are layers of rich brushstrokes forming soft pastel hues. Through a concise visual framework and a hazy background, the girl with sparkling eyes emerges before the viewer.

This painting technique can also be seen in After the Deluge, created in 2006, which is now part of the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

The title of this artwork, No Means No, traces back to a paperwork from 1991. The original piece is currently held in the collection of the Aomori Museum of Art in Japan. It depicts a crashed fighter plane with the red text "No Means No". This demonstrates the artist's intention to convey anti-war sentiments, love, and peace. It is believed that the 2006 version, auctioned this time, carries a similar message.

Lot 7 | Nicolas Party | Still Life with an Olive, Oil on canvasg
Created in 2012-2013
139.5 x 183 cm

  • The Modern Institute, Glasgow
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$26,000,000 - 40,000,000 
Hammer Price: HK$21,000,000
Sold: HK$25,860,000 (US$3.3 million)

In recent years, the Asian art market has witnessed a growing demand for Western artworks. Collectors, in particular, have shown a keen interest in young contemporary artists, hoping to acquire art pieces with investment potential. Aligning perfectly with this trend, this season Phillips presented Nicolas Party's artwork titled Still Life with an Olive in Hong Kong.

Bidding for the lot started at HK$16 million and took five bids to its hammer price of HK$21 million. After fees, it sold for HK$25.8 million (US$3.3 million) to a telephone bidder with paddle number 1006, represented by Charlotte Raybaud, Specialist and Head of Evening Sale in 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Hong Kong.

Charlotte Raybaud won the lot for her client with paddle number 1006

Focusing on portraits, still lifes and landscapes, his works are primarily executed in soft pastel, a notoriously volatile and challenging medium, yet one that allowed him to create an over-saturated palette that calls to mind the work of Fauvist master Henri Matisse. 

An artist born in the 1980s, Nicolas Party splits his creative endeavours between Brussels and New York. In 2018, he held an exhibition at M Woods Museum in Beijing, where his landscape and fruit-themed paintings were well-received by Asian collectors. He has achieved remarkable auction results, notably in Hong Kong. In December of last year, his landscape painting Blue Sunset sold for HK$52.05 million (US$6.7 million) at Christie's Hong Kong, setting a new artist's record.

Nicolas Party

Still Life with an Olive is Party's iconic still life painting, completed in 2013 in oil, instead of soft pastel. It was showcased as part of the artist's solo exhibition at The Modern Institute in Glasgow, Scotland, that same year. It is one of seven still life paintings exhibited, with each piece taking approximately 10 to 20 months to complete.

In this artwork's harmonious composition, Nicolas Party employs vibrant and highly saturated tones of yellow, red, green, and blue. This showcases the artist's versatility in color application and precision in painting. He transforms familiar fruits and still-life objects into forms imbued with other-worldly colors, rhythm, and dynamism, adding a touch of whimsy.

Lot 10 | Liu Ye | The End of Baroque, Acrylic on canvas
Created in 1998
200 x 170 cm
Provenance (Consolidated by The Value):

  • Galerie Serieuze Zaken, Amsterdam
  • Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 7 October 2007, lot 641 (Sold: HK$10,743,500)
  • Private Collection
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$18,000,000 - 28,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$18,000,000
Sold: HK$22,230,000 (US$2.8 million)

The third most expensive painting of the sale, Chinese artist Liu Ye's large-scale The End of Baroque was hammered at HK$18 million, selling for a final price with fees of HK$22.2 million (US$2.8 million) to a telephone bidder with paddle number 1022, represented by Managing Director for Asia Robert Sleigh. 

The same collector went on to snap up American contemporary artist Hernan Bas' The dead line for HK$6.4 million (US$812,800) with fees.

Robert Sleigh won the lot for his client with paddle number 1022

Hernan Bas' The dead line sold for HK$6.4 million with fees

Liu Ye

Undeniably at the forefront of Asian contemporary art, Liu’s powerfully eloquent works are widely praised by critics and highly sought after by collectors. His works are held in numerous prominent collections, including the Long Museum in Shanghai, the M+ Sigg Collection in Hong Kong, and the Today Art Museum in Beijing.

Looking back on his oeuvre, Liu has once noted a distinct shift in his art form: "It can be divided into approximate periods... For all of the nineties, I was greatly influenced by Surrealism and metaphysical art movements. From 2000 onward, I have been more interested in Minimalism and abstract art." Painted in 1998, The End of Baroque thus exists as a relic of the artist’s rarer, earlier pieces.

The window motif has long prevailed in Liu’s works and is a symbol he has often returned to, serving as an early hallmark. It is also indicative of Liu’s penchant for lineal precision, thanks to his love for Piet Mondrian’s rigid grid compositions. 

Measuring 200 x 170 cm, the present work's size is formidable and rare: less than 30 works of such height have come to auction. It was last sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2007 for HK$1.07 million. Now selling for HK$22.3 million, its value has seen a double increase over 16 years.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 11 | Gerhard Richter | Abstraktes Bild (456-2), Oil on canvas
Created in 1980
65.3 x 80.3 cm

  • Fred Jahn Gallery, Munich
  • Collection Dieter Giesing, Hamburg
  • Christie's, New York, 11 November 2004, lot 182
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$7,500,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$9,000,000
Sold: HK$11,340,000

Lot 1 | Ebecho Muslimova | FATEBE SINKHOLE, Acrylic and oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 2020
152.4 x 243.8 cm

  • Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich
  • Private Collection
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$250,000 - 450,000
Hammer Price: HK$700,000
Sold: HK$889,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Phillips Hong Kong
Sale: 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Date: 6 October 2023
Number of Lots: 23
Sold: 22
Unsold: 1
Sale Rate: 95%
Sale Total: HK$189,730,000