Highlights from Poly Auction Hong Kong's 2023 Spring Sales

There’s a Chinese idiom that goes, "One minute of glory on stage, ten years of hard work off stage."

Behind the electric gavel-banging moments of an auction is a time-consuming and labor-intensive preparation process which includes everything from collecting and appraisal to advertising and exhibition.

Over the past four days, Poly Auction Hong Kong presented a series of sales that allowed us  to appreciate artworks across centuries.

As the house wrapped up its spring auctions to a round of applause, let us take a look at the highlight sales from each department.

Alex Chang, Managing Director of Poly Auction Hong Kong

Jenny Lok, Head of Business Development and Operations

Modern and Contemporary Art 

The ceaseless demand for the perpetual auction-house favorite Yoshitomo Nara was apparent in the performance of Acid M.J. – the top lot which landed HK$40.8 million at the headline Modern and Contemporary Art Sale. 

Reaffirming Asia's growing appetite for top-notch contemporary Japanese and Western art, Yayoi Kusama's iconic Pumpkin painting and Gerhard Richter's signature abstract art Abstraktes Bild (607-2) were equally coveted by collectors – both achieving HK$30 million and becoming the sale's second most expensive painting. 

Yoshitomo Nara | Acid M. J., Acrylic on canvas
Painted in 2009, 80.4 x 65.2 cm
Sold: HK$40,800,000

As a tribute to the King of Pop, Acid M.J. is named after Michael Jackson, with the little girl in the portrait reproducing the great musician's thin curly bangs and signature wavy hair.

The work was painted in 2009, the same year as Michael Jackson was due to hold the “This Is It” tour. The light glow of the cream shade background evokes the image of the King of Pop enveloped in the spotlight on stage, fully displaying Michael’s peak moment of performance. Unfortunately, that was also the same year we lost Michael Jackson and the opportunity to watch his spectacular live performances ever again.

Such an explicit portrait of a music artist is rarely seen in Nara's works. In fact, there are only two pieces by Nara titled with an artist’s name, one of which is Peter Ivers, a work executed with pencil on paper in 2021, and Acid M. J. remains his only work on canvas named after a musician, reflecting this lot’s extraordinary status in Nara’s art career.

Yayoi Kusama | Pumpkin, Acrylic on canvas
Painted in 2005, 91.5 x 73.2 cm
Sold: HK$30,000,000

Painted in 2005, the work is a rare large-scale canvas of a Pumpkin executed by the artist. Archetypal of Kusama’s iconic motif, it encapsulates the artist’s obsessional focus on accumulation, repetition, and the infinite through the combination of the three pillars that define her artistic practice – dots, nets, and the pumpkin.

2005 also marked a significant year to the Queen of Polka Dots as the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, organized the most comprehensive retrospective for her at the time, titled Yayoi Kusama: Eternity-Modernity. This exhibition was well received by critics and was another affirmation to solidify Kusama's stance in the art world.

Gerhard Richter | Abstraktes Bild (607-2), Oil on canvas
Painted in 1986, 70.3 x 100.2 cm
Sold: HK$30,000,000

Among the world’s leading contemporary artists, Gerhard Richter is at the top of the list in terms of status, fame and net worth. He stepped into the field of abstract art around the 1960s and has already made a name for himself with his distinctive style in the 1980s.  

His works created between 1986 and 1992 are considered the most finely executed and are highly prized by collectors. Eight of his top ten most expensive works were completed during this period, including Abstraktes Bild (599), which was completed in 1986 and sold for a record-shattering price of US$46.3 million in 2015 – making him once the most expensive living artist. 

Also painted in 1986, Abstraktes Bild (607-2) is a rare work that fully integrates all of Richter's abstract techniques, including traditional brushstrokes, scratchy lines, and squeegee method.

Magnificent Jewels and Important Watches

Recent years have witnessed a meteoric rise in the popularity of jadeite jewellery at auction. Attesting to the growth of the market, the natural Imperial Green jadeite bangle offered by Poly Auction Hong Kong this season sold for a stunning HK$60 million – a world auction record price for jadeite bangle.

Other than that, top-tier jewelry houses continued to enjoy thriving interests among collectors, as demonstrated by the second and third most valuable jewelry sold at the sale – a 'Royal Blue' sapphire ring designed by Van Cleef & Arpels and a 13.09-carat Fancy Vivid Yellow diamond ring by Tiffany & Co..

As for watches, the top lot went to a Jacob & Co.18k white gold Caviar Tourbillon which sold for HK$2.34 million. Another highlight piece was the Rolex Daytona reference 116598 SACO 'Leopard'. Demonstrating that statement pieces from the luxury brand are still in high demand on the secondary market, the Daytona rose 2.5 times above estimates to reach HK$984,000.

Magnificent Imperial Green jadeite bangle (Auction record for a jadeite bangle)
Sold: HK$60,000,000

The allure of jadeite lies in its understated beauty. While jadeite comes in a variety of colors, only those with a fine translucency and a deep emerald green hue can be classified as "Imperial Green" quality – a grade considered to be a parallel to the international color standard set for the 'Pigeon's Blood' for rubies.

Due to the gemstone's complex mineral properties, its captivating aqueous quality is best delivered through round and smooth shapes, mainly in the forms of bangle, beads, and cabochon. Of these classic cuts, the rarest and most valuable is the bangle, a cut that involves immense wastage in the making and demands the greatest craftsmanship to achieve perfect uniformity of hue and saturation.

The bangle presented by the house this season is a precious old pit jadeite. Exuding an air of warmth of tranquility, the deep green hue is reminiscent of clear water, with the intricate natural patterns inside the jade accentuating its unique and primitive beauty.

A very fine and rare 23.49 carat Burmese 'Royal Blue' sapphire and diamond ring, by Van Cleef & Arpels
Sold: HK$8,880,000

Designed by world-renowned jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels, the dazzling oval-shaped 23.49-carat Burmese 'Royal Blue' sapphire is set in the form of a ring, flanked by two exquisite diamonds that amplify the beauty of the rare gemstone. 

Among the various hues of sapphires, the most treasured color is the 'Royal Blue' – a deep yet intensely vivid shade with undertones of violet or purple. With enticing lustre and saturated colour, 'Royal Blue' have captured the hearts of royalty and discerning collectors for centuries. 

Remarkably, the 'Royal Blue' sapphire on the present piece has not gone through any heat treatment to enhance its shade and clarity, a quality that marks its rareness and sky-high market value.

Jacob & Co. | A fine, extremely rare and magnificent 18k white gold and baguette-cut sapphire-set limited edition Caviar Tourbillon wristwatch
Manufactured circa 2015

Diameter: 47mm
Sold: HK$2,340,000

In the Caviar Flying Tourbillon Collection, Jacob & Co., as both watchmaker and jeweler, combines these two worlds with effortless ease, giving birth to luxurious, priceless timepieces. 

A true collector's item, this glamorous sapphire-set flying tourbillon is made in a limited edition of only 18 pieces. Rarity aside, what sets this wristwatch apart is its elaborate gem-setting: its case, dial and lugs are entirely with over 400 highest-quality sapphires.

Perfectly incorporating high jewelry and horology, its brilliant appearance is complemented by the sophisticated complication of a one-minute flying tourbillon that is visible through an aperture at six o'clock.

Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art

In the Chinese antique circle, the most valuable items from the Ming and Qing periods are often ones that would have remained close to the emperors. The imperial seal paste box and cover, the star lot from the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Sale, is a case in point. A true historical treasure, it was not only commissioned but also used by Emperor Jiaqing – the vermilion ink mark on it still survives.

This season, Poly Auction Hong Kong also dedicated a single-owner sale to the collection of Huaihaitang, or ‘Hall of Remembrance of the Sea’, one of the most recognizable names in Hong Kong. 

Generous in sharing his passion for antiquity, the owner has made frequent donations to local museums and academic institutions over the years. Carefully selected by the keen collector, many pieces offered this time were featured in a 2007 exhibition held by Art Museum at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

A gilt and iron-red decorated blue and white seal paste box and cover
Dated Jiaqing period (1796-1820)
Diameter: 22.9 cm
Sold: HK$7,440,000

The cover of the present seal paste box is inscribed with the mark Maoqin Dian, translated as Hall of Diligence, the name of a hall within the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City. Against a ground of pencilled pale underglaze-blue clouds, the mark and a pair of three-clawed dragons are opulently detailed in gilding, boldly symbolizing the Emperor's supreme power.

During the Qianlong and Jiaqing periods, Maoqin Dian was one of the Emperor’s main study area, where they read palace memorials and appreciated calligraphy and paintings. For direct access, many of the imperial seals were stored there, including the present lot.

There is one similar example in the Palace Museum, Beijing, though it has traces of cinnabar seal paste inside the box. 

A large blue-glazed bottle vase, tianqiuping
Dated Qianlong period (1736-1795)
Height: 56 cm
Sold: HK$3,600,000

The term tianqiuping, or 'celestial sphere vase', derives from the vase's form, which is characterised by a generously proportioned round body surmounted by a tall cylindrical neck. It was originated during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when various Persian and Central Asian metalworks were imported into China along the Silk Road. These works were then reproduced in porcelain and adapted to Chinese tastes. 

During the Qianlong period (1736-96), when tianqiuping gained prominence, these vessels were produced in varying sizes. Attesting to the great skill of the potter, the present large vase, measuring 56 cm in height, is perfect in alignment, with the neck in ideal proportion to the body. Due to the difficulty in firing, some other examples could have sunk slightly under their own weight.

A very rare pair of ruby-ground 'hundred boy' handled vases
Dated Jiaqing period (1796 - 1820)
Height: 30.8 cm
Sold: HK$3,120,000

Endowed with a remarkable provenance, the vases were once owned by J. Pierpont Morgan and featured in his catalogue of collection of Chinese porcelains. 

The pair of ruby-ground handled vases are exquisitely decorated with a delightful scene of boys playing-acting dragon boat racing, their excitement and joyfulness skilfully captured in their animated expressions and poses.

A popular theme in the decorative arts of the Qing dynasty, it expresses the desire for many sons to continue the family line and the hope for them to achieve high intellectual status.

Fine Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy

As with Claude Monet's water lilies or Pablo Picasso's muses, great Chinese artists' works with their distinctive motifs have remained highly coveted among collectors. 

Indicative of the market trend, stellar lots from the Fine Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy Sale were all instantly recognizable icons of well-known artists – including Feng Dazhong's Tiger, Zhang Daqian's Lotus Pond, Wu Guanzhong's Spring in Jiangnan, and Li Keran's Cowboys Under the Maple Tree. Tiger, for instance, soared 6.75 times its estimate to achieve HK$2.7 million.

Feng Dazhong | Tiger, Ink and color on paper
139 x 162 cm, Painted in 1990
Sold: HK$2,700,000

The tiger – one of the Chinese zodiacs – occupies a unique position in Chinese culture as a symbol of mighty power and divine protection against evil. Over centuries, the subject has piqued the interest of countless Chinese painters – and Feng Dazhong whose works are dubbed "the best tiger in China" is certainly a name not to be neglected.

Born in 1949 in Northeast China, Feng was fond of painting as a child. Largely self-taught, he never received any formal art education, except learning how to draw tigers from his junior high school art teacher, who inspired him to make art his lifelong career. 

Having learnt from zookeepers that tigers are mentally sharpest in the morning, he began to visit local zoos every morning to study the animal. At times, he even ventured into cages just to draw and observe tigers up close.

Through decades of relentless efforts, he has developed into a master painter of tigers, establishing a modern, unrestrained style while carrying forward the traditions. The tiger under his brush, as portrayed by the present lot, not only exudes majesty and vigor, but also a subtle tenderness with immense intricacies.

Zhang Daqian | Lotus Pond, Ink and color on paper
76 x 152 cm, Painted in 1975
Sold: HK$1,440,000

A household name in China, Zhang Daqian is not only amongst the most popular Asian painters, but also one of the best-selling artists in the auction market, whose works command enormous prices internationally.

While Zhang Daqian is well-known for his ability to juggle virtually every genres of Chinese painting, lotus as one of the artist's favourite flowers has remained a recurring theme in his oeuvre, one that he had painted throughout his artistic career spanning more than 60 years.

Painted in 1975 when Zhang's eyesight deteriorated, Lotus Pond showcases the artist's masterful technique for working with splashed ink during the later stage of his career.

Liberating himself from the fine lines and keenly observed details that had so enriched the art of his early years, here, he focuses on atmosphere and color rather than the depictions of specific scenes to conjure a vivid view of a sumptuous watery lotus pond.

Wu Guanzhong | Spring in Jiangnan, Ink and color on paper
69 x 68.5 cm, Painted in 1983
Sold: HK$1,320,000

Widely recognized as one of the most important artists of 20th-century China, Wu Guanzhong is known for his embrace of Western techniques in Chinese painting.

Painted in 1983, Spring in Jiangnan exemplifies the innovative artist’s magic of transforming everyday scenery to endless possibilities of creation. After studying abroad in France in the 1940s, Wu never returned to settle in his hometown in southern Jiangsu province. 

Filled with a persistent nostalgia, he spent many years traveling around small towns in Jiangnan, tirelessly hauling his painting materials across little bridges and down alleyways to recapture the vistas of the south. The scenes of everyday life in the ancient water town had since became an iconic fixture in his oeuvre.

Noble Handbag and Hype Collectibles

The Hermès Himalaya has long been considered the holy grail of handbags – it is a crowning glory in any fashion collection and yet nearly unattainable. And this season Poly Auction Hong Kong brought not just one but two of them to the auction block.

Coveted as status symbols by even A-listers, the two Himalayan bags on offer – one in Kelly 25 design and the other Birkin 25 – comfortably cracked the HK$1 million mark to lead the sale. The newly released Hermès Kellydole Picto, beloved by fashion darlings and socialites, also soared above estimates to reach HK$540,000.

A rare matte white Himalaya niloticus crocodile Kelly 25 with palladium Hardware
Hermès 2021
Sold: HK$1,860,000

The statement accessory is made from the skin of the rare Nilo crocodile, and is so-called because of its delicate gradation of colour – the smoky grey fading into a pearly white, resembling the mesmerising snow-capped Himalayan mountains. 

Handcrafted, every Himalayan bag is unique and can be styled to the client’s preference. Due to the time-consuming dyeing process, the maison only offers an extremely limited number of Himalaya bags to its VIP clients, making them nearly impossible to come by.

The Kelly bag was originally known as the Sac à Dépêches, designed in the 1930s as a sophisticated reinterpretation of the house's larger saddle bags for equestrian. With a sleek trapezoid shape, practical straps, and a sturdy top handle, the bag was a bold and statement piece in the era of ultra-femininity; and it soon became a favourite of actress-turned-princess Grace Kelly.

While she was often spotted carrying the bag, it was until she began to use it to conceal the early signs of her pregnancy that the bag shot to international fame. As a nod to the Princess, Hermès renamed the bag the “Kelly” in 1977.

A rare matte white Himalaya niloticus crocodile Birkin 25 with palladium Hardware
Hermès 2016
Sold: HK$1,020,000

Named after actress and “it girl” Jane Birkin, the Birkin bag was conceived by the starlet and Hermès CEO Jean-Louis Dumas on a flight to London, where Birkin confided in Dumas that she lacked a purse with appropriate functionality for her fast-paced lifestyle. Out of this conversation, the Birkin 40 in chic calfbox leather was born.

Since its debut in 1984, the Birkin has remained a must-have for handbag collectors, thanks also to its impeccable craftsmanship and exclusivity. As a maison that prides itself on artisanal practice, each Birkin takes an expert artisan a minimum of 18 hours to create, and up to days for one with the most luxurious exotic crocodile skin.

A limited edition mauve sylvestre, chai, nata & lime epsom leather Kellydole Picto with palladium hardware
Hermès 2022
Sold: HK$540,000

A whimsical take on a timeless silhouette, the Quelle Idole – or more popularly known as Kelly Doll – playfully combines the opulent Kelly bag with a child's toy.

First released in 2000 and retailed for around US$2,500, it wasn’t until the bag discontinued in 2005 that it became a most-wanted item for Hermès collectors and soared to sky-high prices at auctions. Starting from 2008, Kelly Doll has popped back up from time to time, mostly to mark the opening of new boutiques around the world, or crafted as Special Order HSS bags for its prestigious clients.  

The exciting news for handbag lovers struck in 2022, when Hermès introduced the Kellydole Picto – a modern update of the original exuberant creation. Accentuating its playfulness, the facial features of this version receive a pixelated treatment which evokes retro 8-bit video games, and on the back is a little backpack that can be detached.   

Rare Wine, Whisky and Chinese Tea

In recent years, the market for aged pu’er tea has grown tremendously in Hong Kong, with record-breaking sales achieved season after season. As a house that dedicates regular sales to Chinese Tea every season, Poly Auction Hong Kong is without doubt an ​​​​​​important market trendsetter in the sector.

Affirming the continued strong demand for fine pu'er tea, the sale saw a 1950s 7-piece pu’er tea cake weighing around 2.17 kilogram fetch an impressive HK$2.4 million.

Seven pieces of vintage pu'er tea cake, 1950s
Weight: approximately 2,166g
Sold: HK$2,400,000

Produced from the Yunnan province in southwestern China, pu’er tea is a post-fermented tea which is known to enhance its quality and flavour through aging. Mellow in flavor with a one-of-a-kind scent, decades-old pu’er could said to be a ‘drinkable antique’.

With its unique aroma and health benefits in the view of Chinese medicine – easing digestion in particular – pu’er tea had become the royal family’s favourite, being served during royal ceremonies, competitions, literary gathering and lectures across different dynasties in imperial China.

Since 1950, pu'er production has been under the regulation of the government, unveiling an era known as 'Yin Ji' teacakes period. Products from this period all share the same trademark design on the packaging and inner ticket. 

The present 'Yin Ji' teacake is from one of the period's five most renowned brands, known as Red Label Teacake without wrapping.