In the Milky Lake, Nara’s iconic ‘little girl’ painting, sells for US$12.8m at Sotheby’s Hong Kong

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sotheby’s in Asia, the auction house presented four evening sales on 5 April. Wrapping up the night was its Contemporary Evening Sale, where we saw another lot selling for over HK$100m this season.

The centrepiece fell to Nara’s In the Milky Lake, a painting featuring his widely recognisable ‘little girl'. It was hammered down at HK$85 million and sold for HK$ HK$100.56 million (around US$12.8 million) after premium. It is also the seventh artwork by the artist to sell for over HK$100 million.

The sale reached a sell-through rate of 95%, with only two items unsold among 42 lots offered, realising a total of HK$671 million.

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

In the Milky Lake was hammered down at HK$85m

Also sharing the limelight of the sale was Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin (L) bronze sculpture, which was sold for HK$62.63 million, a record for a sculpture by Kusama. Her pumpkin painting titled A-Pumpkin (BAGN8) was sold for HK$55.16 million. Such impressive sales results achieved once again demonstrate the growing popularity of these two Japanese artists in the Asian market.

The sale also set new auction records for at least six artists, such as Loie Hollowell, Matthew Wong, Hao Liang, Duan Jianyu, Tomokazu Matsuyama, and Rafa Macarrón, reflecting Asian collectors’ appetite for new and rising artists.   

Lot 1119 | Yoshitomo Nara | In the Milky Lake, Acrylic on canvas
Created in 2012
197 x 194 cm

  • Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$80,000,000 - 120,000,000
Hammer price: HK$85,000,000
Sold: HK$100,555,000 (around US$12.8 million)

The top four lots of the sales were all offered with an irrevocable bid (with a bidder secured before the sale) to guarantee they would all be successfully sold.

The leading lot, In the Milky Lake, was offered with an opening bid of HK$60 million. The auctioneer Ian McGinlay received bids at HK$65 million, HK$70 million, HK$75 million and then HK$85 million. The final price was from the telephone bidder L0054 represented by Alex Branczik, Chairman, Modern & Contemporary Art, Asia.

The hammer was down at this price, which is likely to be offered by the irrevocable bidder. The painting was sold for HK$100.56 million (around US$12.8 million) after premium.

Alex Branczik bought the painting for his telephone bidder with a paddle number L0054

In the Milky Lake made it to the list of Nara’s artworks that sold for HK$100million:

  1. Knife Behind Back. Created in 2000Sotheby’s Hong Kong. October 2019Sold: HK$195,696,000
  2. Missing in Action. Created in 2000Phillips & Poly Auction (Sale collaboration in Hong Kong and Beijing); June 2021Sold: HK$123,725,000
  3. Nice to See You Again. Created in 1996Sotheby’s New York. November 2021Sold: US$15,430,800 (Around HK$120.3m)
  4. Berlin Barack, Room 1. Created in 2007Poly Auction Hong Kong. April 2021Sold: HK$120,000,000 / US$15.38 million
  5. Oddly Cozy. Created in 2013Sotheby’s Hong Kong. April 2022Sold: HK$111,970,000
  6. Hothouse Doll. Created in 1995Phillips & Poly Auction (Sale collaboration). December 2020Sold: HK$103,115,000
  7. In the Milky Lake. Created in 2012Sotheby’s Hong Kong. April 2023Sold: HK$100,555,000

Knife Behind Back holds Nara’s current auction record

Missing in Action was sold for HK$123 million in 2021 at Phillips and Poly Auction’s sale collaboration

Nice to See You Again was sold at Sotheby's New York for US$15.43 million 

Created in 2012, In the Milky Lake features the most recognisable Nara heroine rendered in meticulous detail, the little girl in a green dress emerges from a pearlescent neutral background, her feet submerged in a rippling puddle. A major motif in the artist's work and after which Nara named his first major solo exhibition in 1995, In the Deepest Puddle.

Nara’s work took a dramatic shift after the March 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan. After an initial period of reflection and engagement with local communities worst hit by the disaster, Nara experienced what Yeewan Koon describes as “a fresh surge of creative energy”. Half-submerged in water, the girl’s tranquil facial expression in In the Milky Lake conveys a sense of peace.

Similar works from the series are now in museum collections. One example is After the deluge (2006), currently in the collection of San Diego Museums. Measuring 162.5 x 145cm, the painting is slightly smaller than In the Milky Lake.

Yoshitomo Nara

Yoshitomo Nara | In the Deepest Puddles II (1995), 120 × 110 cm

Yoshitomo Nara | After the Deluge (2006), 162.5 × 145 cm


Lot 1118 | Yayoi Kusama | Pumpkin (L), Bronze
Created in 2014
241 x 235 x 235 cm
This work is number 8 from an edition of 8

  • Victoria Miro, London
  • Private Collection
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$40,000,000 - 60,000,000
Hammer price: HK$52,000,000

Sold: HK$62,638,000 (around US$80.3 million)

Kusama’s Pumpkin (L) bronze sculpture was also offered with an irrevocable bid but the contest was more intense. At least three bidders joined since the bidding started at HK$30 million and the price soon rose to HK$42 million after five bids.

The gavel was down with Nicolas Chow offering HK$52 million on behalf of his client with paddle number L0057. The final price sold was HK$62.63 million after premium, a new auction record for a sculpture by Yayoi Kusama.

The previous auction record was made by pumpkin sculpture of fiberglass-reinforced plastic and urethane paint that sold for HK$55.45 million at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2021.

Nicolas Chow (holding the telephone) bought Pumpkin (L) for his client (paddle number L0057)

Yayoi Kusama’s retrospective exhibition titled Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now at M+ Museum has put her under the spotlight in the art world again, showcasing her classic pumpkin sculptures and infinity net paintings.

One of the most universally recognisable images of contemporary art today, the pumpkin is central to Kusama’s widely celebrated oeuvre, appearing throughout the artist’s work from flat canvases and abstract paintings to gallery-wide installations. Inspired by the matured pumpkin’s organic surface, Kusama’s stylised ribbons of multi-sized spots are most frequently depicted in yellow and black, making this bronze edition an exceptional example.

A total of eight editions of the current Pumpkins (L) sculptures were made. Rest of the work from the series are now in private hands or museum collections such as The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, the outdoor sculpture garden at the Donum Estate Vineyard in Northern California. It was also installed as the first permanent public artwork by the artist in Manhattan, outside of The Sky Building at 605 West 42nd Street.

Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now retrospective exhibition at M+ Museum in Hong Kong

Another edition of the present work was installed in Manhattan, outside of The Sky Building at 605 West 42nd Street

Lot 1129 | Yayoi Kusama | A-Pumpkin (BAGN8), Acrylic on canvas
Created in 2011
162 x 130 cm

  • Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo
  • Private Collection
  • Victoria Miro, London
  • Private Collection
  • Seoul Auction, Hong Kong, 25 November 2017, Lot 46
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$40,000,000 - 55,000,000
Hammer price: HK$45,500,000
Sold: HK$55,169,500 (around US$7.1 million)

Another highlight lot of Kusama's artwork was her 2011 painting A-Pumpkin [BAGN8], which was sold for HK$55.16 million after premium. It became the third top lot of the same and was bought by a client of Shea Lam (Specialist, Contemporary Art, Sotheby's Asia) with paddle number L0050.

Measuring 162 x 130 cm, it was created in 2011 at the apex of the artist’s global rise to pre-eminence. Executed in the artist’s signature black and yellow colour palette and of large size the artist conducts her pumpkin compositions, A-Pumpkin (BAGN8) exudes a luminous quality, the bright yellow of the pumpkin’s surface cutting through the shadowy blackness of Kusama’s all-over scaled tessellations.

Shea Lam (with the paddle raised) won the bid for her client (paddle number L0050)

Lot 1112 | Matthew Wong (1984-2019), River at Dusk, Oil on canvas
Created in 2018
203.2 x 177.8 cm

  • KARMA, New York
  • Private Collection
  • Phillips, Hong Kong, 3 December 2020, Lot 4
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$40,000,000 - 60,000,000
Hammer price: HK$43,000,000

Sold: HK$52,297,000 (around US$6.7 million)

Matthew Wong’s landscape painting River at Dusk fetched nearly HK$52.23 million, a new auction record for the artist. The buyer was the telephone bidder (paddle number L0003) represented by Elizabeth Webb, Specialist in the Contemporary Art department at Sotheby's New York.

Wong’s unique vocabulary is characterized by intricate tactile surfaces, spirited abstracted strokes, ebulliently radiant palettes, and dramatic foreshortening that recall modernist spatial abstractions.

Created in the year before Wong’s passing, River at Dusk captures the essence of dusk, expressing the artist’s ability of depicting a familiar, specific moment in time whether it be Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, dawn, dusk or night. Towering two metres in height, the painting envelops the viewer in Wong’s rich dreamscape of pointillist dots and impastoed dabs, deriving from memories and his mental database of artists and artworks that he encountered online, spanning centuries and genres.

The artwork made its auction debut at Phillips Hong Kong in 2020 and sold for HK$37.76 million, a new record for the artist at the time. It returned to the market after two years at the current sale and further broke the artist’s record with an increase in value of HK$14.53 million.

Elizabeth Webb (centre) bought the painting for her client (paddle number L0003)

Matthew Wong

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 1124 | Gerhard Richter | Abstrakte Bilder,  Oil on canvas, in 4 parts 
Created in 1992
Each: 200 x 70 cm; overall: 200 x 280 cm  

  • Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
  • Private Collection, New York
  • Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
  • Collection Isabel and David Breskin, San Francisco
  • Christie’s, London, 1 July 2014, Lot 48
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$32,000,000 - 45,000,000
Hammer price: HK$30,000,000
Sold: HK$36,750,000

Lot 1120 | Yayoi Kusama | My Heart is Flying to the Universe, Mirrored box and LED lighting system
Created in 2018
220 x 214 x 185 cm

  • David Zwirner, New York (acquired from the artist)
  • Private Collection
  • David Zwirner, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000
Hammer price: HK$21,000,000
Sold: HK$25,860,000

Lot 1128 | Hao Liang | Theology and Evolution, Ink and colour on silk (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 2011
86 x 70 cm (left); 120 x 82 cm (centre); 140 x 90 cm (right). 140 x 242 cm (overall)

  • The Artist
  • Important Private Asian Collection (acquired from the above)

Estimate: HK$16,000,000 - 25,000,000
Hammer price: HK$20,000,000
Sold: HK$24,650,000

Lot 1114 | Yayoi Kusama | Infinity Nets (QNTBH), Acrylic on canvas
Created in 2006
161.9 x 130.2 cm

  • Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo
  • Private Collection
  • Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000
Hammer price: HK$19,500,000
Sold: HK$24,045,000

Lot 1104 | Loie Hollowell | Standing in Red, Oil paint, acrylic medium, and high-density foam on linen over panel (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 2019
182.9 x 137.2 x 9.5 cm

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

Estimate: HK$5,000,000 - 7,000,000
Hammer price: HK$5,800,000

Sold: HK$7,366,00

Lot 1142 | Duan Jianyu | Sister No.15, oil on canvas, in 2 parts (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 2008
Each: 181 x 216 cm; Overall: 181 x 432 cm

  • Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou / Beijing
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$5,800,000 - 7,800,000
Hammer price: HK$5,800,000
Sold: HK$7,366,000




Lot 1145 | Tomokazu Matsuyama | Nice Quiet Hot Tears, Acrylic and mixed media on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 2018
264 x 213 cm

  • Private Collection, Asia

Estimate: HK$1,200,000 - 1,800,000
Hammer price: HK$4,000,000
Sold: HK$5,080,000

Lot 1138 | Rafa Macarrón | CAC I, Mixed media on canvas, in 3 parts (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 2021
Each: 366 x 226 cm; Overall: 366 x 678 cm

  • Private Collection (acquired directly from the artist)

Estimate: HK$3,500,000 - 5,500,000
Hammer price: HK$3,500,000
Sold: HK$4,445,000

Auction Details:

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: 50th Anniversary Contemporary Evening Auction
Date: 5 April 2023
Number of Lots: 42
Sold: 40
Unsold: 2
Sale Rate: 95%
Sale Total: HK$670,791,200 (around US$85.451 million)