Sotheby's Hong Kong raked in US$13.6m in its last evening sale of the year

The last month of 2022 has seen a flurry of activity at Sotheby's Hong Kong. Last week, Patti Wong, International Chairman, stepped down from her position; and yesterday, the house revealed plans to relocate its Hong Kong headquarters. 

On the same day, the global auction house presented a Modern and Contemporary Auction, an evening sale which is out of its regular auction schedule. Amongst 23 lots offered, three were unsold, yielding an 87% sell-through rate and adding HK$106 million (around US$13.6 million) to the house's year-end total.  

Four lots managed to soar above the HK$10 million benchmark, with all of them backed by irrevocable bids to ensure they would sell. The most expensive lot of the sale went to prominent Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's iconic pumpkin sculpture, which sold for HK$27 million (around US$3.5 million) with fees. 

The evening sale was held at Sotheby's Hong Kong Gallery in Admiralty's One Pacific Place

Lot 507 | Yayoi Kusama | Pumpkin (S), Bronze
Created in 2014, this work is number 8 from an edition of 8, plus 2 artist's proofs
108 x 114 x 114 cm

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

Estimate: HK$16,000,000 - 23,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$22,000,000
Sold: HK$26,995,000 (around US$3.5 million)

As Yayoi Kusama’s blockbuster retrospective opens at Hong Kong’s M+ museum, the city has been awash with her signature polka dots, placing the titan of contemporary art at the forefront of the local art scene. Riding on the momentum, major auction houses have offered Kusama’s works at Hong Kong auction this season – and enthusiasm for the Queen of Polka Dots saw no signs of waning in the present sale.

Drawing multiple midders, Pumpkin (S) was avidly pursued by collectors, who pushed the price past its low estimate to hammer at HK$22 million. After fees, it fetched HK$27 million (around US$3.5 million) to take the crown of the sale. 

Exquisitely materialised in gleaming bronze, Pumpkin (S) was produced for the artist’s installation at the Victoria Miro Gallery in 2014, a noteworthy year for Kusama whose work was on exhibit at three international museum exhibitions. The depiction is a departure from Kusama's customary stylised ribbons of yellow and black multi-sized spots, a meticulously-rendered sculpture which took her a total of two years to bring the artwork to life.

Yayoi Kusama’s blockbuster retrospective opens at Hong Kong’s M+ museum

Born 1929 in post-war Japan, Kusama was the youngest of four children in a wealthy family. During her childhood, Kusama began to repeatedly experience vivid hallucinations of kaleidoscopic patterns, memories of which she described: "I was always standing at the centre of the obsession, over the passionate accretion and repetition inside of me."

Her profound connection with the pumpkin motif can be traced back to a vivid episode during her childhood: “The first time I ever saw a pumpkin was when I was in elementary school and went with my grandfather to visit a big seed-harvesting ground…and there it was: a pumpkin the size of a man’s head…It immediately began speaking to me in a most animated manner.”

She also recalls having overconsumed the vegetable to the point of nausea in her childhood years during and after the war – but which in later years has become one of her favourite subjects. For Kusama, pumpkin is her spiritual home, bringing about poetic peace for her mind – they are an embodiment of optimism, serenity and joy.

Lot 506 | Yoshitomo Nara | Hey! Ho! Let's Go!, Acrylic on found signboard (diptych)
Created in 2011 
Each: 160 x 85.5 x 4 cm; Overall: 160 x 171 x 4 cm

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

Estimate: HK$15,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$15,000,000
Sold: HK$18,525,000 (around US$2.38 million)

Also backed by an irrevocable bid, best-selling Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara’s billboard diptych Hey! Ho! Let’s Go! was hammered on its low estimate at HK$15 million, selling for HK$18.5 million (around US$2.38 million) with fees to become the second-most expensive lot of the sale.

Created in 2011, Hey! Ho! Let’s Go! is a remarkable example from the artist’s celebrated billboard paintings. During this period, Nara began to conquer a vast surface of readymade materials, favouring objects such as wood, signboard and cardboard. A notably special piece, the present lot stands out as the only painted diptych of Nara’s to be rendered on found material.

In this particular diptych, the wide-eyed and potty-mouthed childlike figures are two of Nara’s “Ramonas”, recurring characters inspired by the New York punk band Ramones. Heirs to the band’s lawless attitude, the two Ramonas appear to be performing on stage with all their might and main, one arm raised in defiance, the other wrangling the microphone, tipping their proverbial hat to Blitzkrieg Bop, a Ramones song to which the present lot's title pays homage. 

Nara gravitated toward the anti-establishment ethos of punk music in the 1980s

New York punk band Ramones

Born in rural Japan in 1959, Nara grew up in a family where his parents were often occupied with work, leaving much of his boyhood in solitude. Without any companion, his only kind of entertainment were talking to animals, reading comic books and listening to music. In a small town where there was no museum, album covers provided Nara with an introduction to visual art that would go on to inform much of his work.

Nara has once declared about his work, “The influence of music on me is far more significant than that of manga and other things that people often talk about.” As a young artist in the 1980s, Nara gravitated toward the anti-establishment ethos of punk music, with lyrics from bands like The Clash and the Sex Pistols echoing throughout his artwork.

An intimate part of his creative process, Nara would work at alone in his studio, usually late at night, with punk rock screaming from speakers. It was when his imagination take on a life of its own, channelling his emotions into the sweet yet menacing solitary figures.

Lot 512 | Zao Wou-ki | 21.11.71, Oil on canvas
Created on 21 November 1971
73 x 100 cm

  • Private Collection (acquired directly from the artist circa 1971)
  • Christie’s, Paris, 11 December 2007, lot 10
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner
  • By Land and By Sea: The Collection of Paul Yeou Chichong

Estimate: HK$16,000,000 - 25,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$14,500,000
Sold: HK$17,920,000 (around US$2.3 million)

Two works from Chinese-French master Zao Wou-ki's most acclaimed Hurricane Period, 06.10.70 and 27.11.71, have been housed in the By Land and By Sea: The Collection of Paul Yeou Chichong in Tahiti for decades. Both backed by irrevocable bids, 06.10.70 fetched HK$18 million (around US$2.3 million) to become the sale's third-most expensive lot. 

The Tahitian collector developed his interest in art since studying in France during the 1950s and began his collection of art spanning vast periods and styles in the 1970s. Amassed over decades and across continents, the collection is an encyclopedic grouping of the art historical canon gathered through diligence and a love of art by a true connoisseur. 

Zao Wou-ki

Created in 1971, 21.11.71 is a prime example completed at the peak of Zao's artistic career known as his Hurricane Period, which is marked by a central-axis composition integrated with Chinese cursive calligraphy informed by Western abstract expressionism.

Here, piercing blues meet sand tones along the painting’s midline, indicating the coalescence of the sky and the earth. As is typical of traditional Chinese landscapes, the painting is likely a microcosm of a larger scene, one of many puzzle pieces that form a bigger, metaphorical picture.

Lot 511 | Zao Wou-ki | 06.10.70, Oil on canvas
Created on 6 October 1970
60.5 x 73 cm

  • Private Collection, Lisbon
  • Christie's, London, 29 June 1989, lot 588
  • Private Collection
  • Christie's, New York, 16 November 2006, lot 147
  • Private Collection (acquired from the above)
  • Christie’s, Paris, 9 December 2008, lot 27 (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner
  • By Land and By Sea: The Collection of Paul Yeou Chichong

Estimate: HK$5,000,000 - 10,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,600,000
Sold: HK$5,796,000 (around US$591,147)

The year 1970 marked a pivotal turning point for Zao's artistic career. At the time, his wife, Chan May-Kam, had been suffering from irregular bouts of ill health. With his loved one's physical condition being on the forefront of his mind, Zao turned to Chinese philosophies for solace, eventually finding salvation in the form of artistic expression. 

06.10.70’s composition, though recalls the trademark central axis that is prominent in a lot of Zao’s Hurricane Period works, appears to be far more relaxed. Instead of filling up the entire canvas with intense colors, Zao boldly left the top of the canvas open white background, creating an open space. The use and emphasis of the absent space echoes the Eastern philosophy of Nothingness, reflecting on Zao’s search for inner-peace by turning his gaze Eastward.

Lot 515 | Liu Ye | Composition with Moonlight, Acrylic on canvas
Created in 2005
45 x 45 cm

  • Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York
  • Private Collection
  • Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 6 October 2013, Lot 979 (HK$3,520,000)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$7,000,000 - 9,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$8,000,000
Sold: HK$10,055,000 (around US$1.29 million)

Recent years have seen Chinese painter Liu Ye gathering momentum at auctions. In 2019, his monumental painting Smoke from 2001-2002 sold for a record-breaking HK$52.18 million (US$6.65 million) at Sotheby's Hong Kong. Two years later, his auction record was shattered by the nine-metre Bamboo Bamboo Broadway, when it sold for RMB 80,500,000 (around US$12.58 million) at Poly Beijing. 

The present Composition with Moonlight was offered at Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2013, having sold for HK$3.5 million. Now that nine years have passed, it went for a final price of HK$10.1 million (around US$1.29 million) with fees, meaning its value has increased by 2.85 times.

Liu Ye

Ranking among Liu Ye's most enduring motifs, works by Mondrian have featured in the artist’s compositions since the early 1990s, yet this depiction’s delicate size and blue hue imparts a silent and mystical power. 

Here, Mondrian’s Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow hangs on the otherwise bare, blue wall, transcending beyond the confines of its canvas into the surrounding composition and beyond.

The highest-estimated lot, Mark Rothko's Untitled (Red and Orange on Salmon), which was billed by the house as the artist’s first major work to be offered at auction in Asia, was surprisingly withdrawn last-minute:

Lot 508 | Mark Rothko | Untitled (Red and Orange on Salmon), Acrylic on paper laid on canvas
Created in 1969
60.8 x 45.5 cm

  • Marlborough Gallery, Inc., New York
  • The Lionel Corporation, New York
  • PaceWildenstein Gallery, New York
  • Private Collection
  • Sotheby’s, London, 21 June 2007, Lot 51
  • Private Collection
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$42,500,000 - 55,000,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: Modern and Contemporary Auction
Date: 15 December 2022
Number of Lots: 23
Sold: 20
Unsold: 3
Sale Rate: 87$
Sale Total: HK$106,721,200