Sotheby's Modern and Contemporary evening sales in Hong Kong rake in a flat combined US$71 million

In a back-to-back sequence of five auctions, Sotheby's Hong Kong 50th Anniversary Autumn Evening Sales realised a total of HK$1.33 billion (US$170 million). Perhaps clouded by a sluggish Chinese economy, the two regular events, Modern and Contemporary Evening Auctions were both rather tepid affairs.

For the contemporary art section, 18 out of 23 lots on offer were sold, bringing in a hammer total of HK$289 million (HK$352 million or US$45.1 million with fees included) – a far cry from the pre-sale low estimate of HK$406 million, with a sell-through rate of 78%. 

While two major works by Japanese star artist Yayoi Kusama surprisingly went unsold – including a sculpture and a golden Infinity Net painting – heavyweight Gerhard Richter saw solid performance, with a signature squeegee abstract selling for HK$84 million (US$10.8 million), the highest price achieved in the sale. 

The modern art sale, on the other hand, was dominated by Asian artists, with Zao Wou-ki's vibrant red Oracle Bone painting Sous un grand arbre d'été - 05.07.54 becoming the top lot at HK$44 million (US$5.6 million). Overall, of 31 works for sale, 11 failed to find new homes, resulting in a lukewarm sell-through rate of 70% and a sale total of HK$202 million (US$25.9 million) with fees.

For the results of the other sales, click the article links below for more details:

Contemporary Evening Auction

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 (Sold: £9,897,250)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner 

Estimate: HK$70,000,000 - 100,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$71,000,000
Sold: HK$84,469,000 (US$10.8 million)

Coming to the auction with an irrevocable bid, Gerhard Richter's squeegee abstract was opened at HK$45 million and received six bids before hammering at HK$71 million. After fees, the work went for HK$84.5 million (US$10.8 million) to a telephone bidder with paddle number L0037, represented by Jen Hua, Deputy Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and Chairman, China.

Walking from photo-realism to abstraction, Gerhard 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.

Jen Hua won the lot for her client with paddle number L0037

Gerhard Richter

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 imparts 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.

Lot 1206 | Julie Mehretu | Untitled, Acrylic, ink and graphite on canvas, in 2 parts (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 2001
Overall: 182.8 x 487.6 cm; Each: 182.8 x 243.8 cm
Provenance (Consolidated 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
Hammer Price: HK$61,000,000
Sold: HK$72,979,000 (US$9.3 million)

The second most expensive lot of the sale was Ethiopian-American contemporary artist Julie Mehretu's Untitled, which also came with an irrevocable bid. Bidding for the work started at HK$48 million and four bids took it to the hammer price of HK$48 million, going to a telephone bidder with paddle number L0025 represented by Jen Hua.

With fees, its final sum became HK$72.9 million (US$9.3 million), a new auction record for the artist. Her previous record was set in 2021 when Dissident Score (2019–21) fetched US$6.5 million at Artsy.

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.

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

Jen Hua won the lot for client with paddle number L0025

Julie Mehretu

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

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.

Other lots that sold above HK$10 million in the Contemporary Evening Auction:

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
Hammer Price: HK$32,000,000
Sold: HK$39,170,000

Lot 1207 | Yayoi Kusama | Pumpkin (M), Mirror polished bronze 
Executed in 2016, this work is number 6 from an edition of 8, plus 2 artist's proofs
105 x 90 x 90 cm

  • Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$24,000,000 - 40,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$18,000,000
Sold: HK$22,230,000

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
Hammer Price: HK$16,200,000
Sold: HK$22,230,000

Lot 1205 | Yayoi Kusama | Infinity-Nets (RAZX), Acrylic on canvas
Created in 2011
162 x 162 cm

  • Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$15,000,000
Sold: HK$18,600,000

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
Hammer Price: HK$18,000,000
Sold: HK$22,230,000

Lot 1214 | Park Seo-Bo | Ecriture No. 37-75-76, Oil and pencil on canvas 
Created in 1975-76
195 x 300 cm

  • Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
  • Private Collection
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 31 March 2018, Lot 1066
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner 

Estimate: HK$17,000,000 - 25,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$16,500,000
Sold: HK$20,415,000

Lot 1203 | Lucy Bull | Flash Chamber, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 2020
201 x 162.5 cm

  • High Art, Paris
  • Private Collection
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$11,000,000
Sold: HK$13,760,000

Coinciding with Zao Wou-Ki's major retrospective at CAA Art Museum in Hangzhou, China, titled The Way is Infinite: Centennial Retrospective Exhibition of Zao Wou-Ki, the Modern Evening Auction was led by a trio of paintings which represented three key stages of the abstract master's artistic career. 

The most expensive one was Sous un grand arbre d'été - 05.07.54 from the artist's important Oracle Bone Period. On an opening bid of HK$28 million, it attracted four bids and was hammered at HK$36 million, selling for HK$44 million (US$5.6 million) to a telephone bidder. 

The artist's early work, Sans titre, and 15.03.60 from his acclaimed Hurricane Period, both landed at HK$16.2 million (US$2.1 million). 

The major retrospective showcases 129 oil paintings and over 200 pieces of other works by Zao Wou-Ki

Lot 2820 | Zao Wou-ki | Sans titre, Oil on canvas
Created in 1950
73 x 50 cm
Provenance (Consolidated by The Value):

  • Private Collection, Switzerland 
  • Private Collection 
  • Private Asian Collection
  • Poly Auction, Hong Kong, 6 April 2014, Lot 126 (Sold: HK$12,680,000)
  • Private Asian Collection (acquired from the above)

Estimate: HK$7,000,000 - 15,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$13,000,000
Sold: HK$16,180,000 (US$2.1 million)

Painted in 1950, Sans titre is a rare piece of artwork blending figurative and abstract elements, which marked a brief period when Zao integrated representational style with abstract art.

Born in China, Zao began painting at the age of 10. His early interest in art was encouraged by his family and he was sent to study calligraphy and painting at the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts. Influenced by his father, he was also extremely familiar with the features and historical significance of ancient Chinese bronze cultures and oracle bones.

In 1948, Zao moved to Paris and immersed himself in the thriving Parisian modern art scene. There he began exploring the field of abstract art and shifted his focus to ancient Chinese art for artistic breakthrough. 

By merging Chinese elements like Han dynasty stone rubbings, ink and wash art into lithographs, he created a series of lithograph works, including the present one, which is often considered to be the artist's exploratory artworks towards abstraction.

Zao Wou-ki

Lot 2814 | Zao Wou-ki | Sous un grand arbre d'été - 05.07.54, Oil on canvas 
Created on 5 July 1954
92 x 73 cm
Provenance (Consolidated by The Value):

  • Galerie Pierre Loeb, Paris
  • David and Edith Bortin, Philadelphia 
  • Sotheby's, New York, 19 May 1999, Lot 235 
  • Private Collection, Taiwan
  • Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 3 April 2016, Lot 1023 (Sold: HK$35,480,000)
  • Private Asian Collection (acquired from the above)
  • Important Private Asian Collection (acquired from the above)

Estimate upon request
Hammer Price: HK$36,000,000
Sold: HK$44,010,000 (US$5.6 million)

Within only four years, in 1954, Zao had already achieved a major breakthrough – as exemplified by this top lot – and raised to prominence in the European and American art scene. 

At that time, no longer restricted by the exact representation of objects, Zao comprehended nature in the abstract with the help of oracle bone symbols, and captured the essence of natural elements including the sun, forest, and summer on the canvas. 

With these full abstract works, he was invited to hold exhibitions not only across Europe, but also in the Cincinnati Art Museum in the United States. Life magazine even published a feature article on him, which marked a millstone of his career. 

The works in Zao's Oracle Bone Period hold great significance for the development of his artistic career as well as that of modern Chinese abstract art. As a result, most of his works collected in global museums are from that period. Many of them, however, are themed with dark colors, with only around ten based on vibrant red like the present work, making it an extremely rare sight at auction.

Lot 2822 | Zao Wou-ki | 15.03.60, Oil on canvas
Created in 1960
89 x 116 cm

  • Galerie de France, Paris
  • Collection of the Cohen Family, New York (acquired directly from the above in 1960) 

Estimate: HK$10,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$13,000,000
Sold: HK$16,180,000 (US$2.1 million)

The 1960s witnessed the zenith of Zao Wou-Ki's Hurricane Period, a pivotal era in which the artist entered his golden age of international acclaim.

In 1957, Zao set out on a year-long trip with Pierre Soulages, travelling to New York, Japan, and Hong Kong. This journey put him at the centre of an international artistic exchange in the post-war era, where he met the leading American Abstract Expressionists for the first time. 

Deeply inspired, upon return to Europe Zao delved into the creation of a new series of abstracts with a renewed vigour. The oracle bone symbols gradually melted onto his canvas, and the energy and movement of Chinese cursive calligraphy were masterfully blended with Western abstract expressionism, resulting in a bold, powerful and wildly cursive style. And 15.03.60 stands as a testament to this artistically significant transformative period.

Other lots that sold above HK$10 million in the Modern Evening Auction:

Lot 2830 | Wu Guanzhong | Peach Blossoms, Oil on board 
Created in 1963
45 x 60 cm
Provenance (Consolidated by The Value):

  • Private Asian Collection
  • Christie's, Hong Kong, 28 May 2006, Lot 171 (consigned by the above)
  • Private Asian Collection
  • Christie's, Hong Kong, 24 November 2018, Lot 17 (consigned by the above; Sold: HK$12,700,000)
  • Private Asian Collection (acquired from the above)

Estimate: HK$14,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$13,500,000
Sold: HK$16,785,000

Lot 2814 | Marc Chagall | Scène de cirque, Oil and tempera on canvas
Created in 1970
65.1 x 75 cm

  • Estate of the Artist
  • Private Collection, USA
  • O’Hara Gallery, New York (by 1998)
  • Alon Zakaim Gallery, London (acquired from the above)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$12,000,000
Sold: HK$14,970,000

Lot 2813 | Chu Teh-Chun | L'espoir est né, Oil on canvas
Created in 1991
180 x 230 cm

  • Private Asian Collection
  • Christie's, Hong Kong, 30 May 2015, Lot 61
  • Important Private Asian Collection (acquired from the above)

Estimate: HK$13,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$12,000,000
Sold: HK$14,970,000

Lot 2815 | Chu Teh-Chun | No. 144, Oil on canvas
Created in 1963
147 x 97.5 cm

  • Galerie Legendre, Paris
  • Private Collection, Paris
  • Private Collection (acquired from the above)
  • Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 24 November 2018, Lot 124 (consigned by the above)
  • Private Asian Collection (acquired from the above)

Estimate: HK$11,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$11,000,000
Sold: HK$13,760,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Date: 5 October 23

Sale: Modern Evening Auction
Number of Lots: 37
Sold: 26
Unsold: 11
Sale Rate: 70%
Sale Total: HK$202,006,000

Sale: Contemporary Evening Auction
Number of Lots: 23
Sold: 18
Unsold: 5
Sale Rate: 78%
Sale Total: HK$336,872,500