Sotheby's evening sale in HK garners US$83.1m, led by a US$12.3m Nara

Hot on the heels of the busy "Art March" in Hong Kong, Sotheby's Hong Kong presented its modern and contemporary art evening sale on Thursday (5 Apr), raking in HK$634 million (US$83.1 million) from 41 lots on offer. 

All but one lot in the auction found new homes, bringing the sell-through rate to a remarkable 97%. The most expensive lot of the night went to perennial auction-house favorite Yoshitomo Nara's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (2017), selling for HK$95.9 million (US$12.3 million). 

Following the Japanese artist's price were those achieved by Western masters, including Pablo Picasso, for Le Peintre (1963) and Claude Monet, for Route de Monte-Carlo (1883). 

Lot 1539 | Yoshitomo Nara (b.1959) | I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Acrylic on canvas
Executed in 2017
220.2 x 195.3 cm

  • Pace Gallery
  • Private Collection, U.K.
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$80,000,000 - 120,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$81,000,000
Sold: HK$95,959,000 (around US$12.3 million)

Ahead of the auction, this highest-estimated lot had been requested for the upcoming traveling exhibition titled Yoshitomo Nara at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Museum of Frieder Burda in Germany, and the Hayward Gallery in London.

The auctioneer opened the bidding for the lot at HK$65 million. As the bid came to HK$75 million, Simon Stock (Senior Specialist, Impressionist & Modern Art, Europe, and Asia, based in London) joined the bidding with an offer of HK$80 million.

Asian chairman Wendy Lin, who sat next to him, then tried a bid of HK$80.5 million but had initially been rejected, until the auctioneer failed to get the HK$81 million bid he asked for and accepted.

Stock's client with paddle number L0065 quickly responded, placing the winning bid of HK$81 million and taking the lot home for a final price with fees of HK$95.9 million (around US$12.3 million). 

Simon Stock (second-right) won the lot for his client; next to him was Wendy Lin

Yoshitomo Nara | Knife Behind Back (2000) | Sold: HK$195,000,000, Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2019

Currently a sensation in the Asian art market, Yoshitomo Nara is known for his iconic motif of the little big-headed girls. These figures, variously shy, aggressive, pensive, fragile, and strong, have become among the most beloved imagery of the last thirty years. 

In 2019, his 2000 painting Knife Behind Back sold for HK$195 million (US$25 million), making him the most expensive Japanese artist. Up to the present, he continued to perform strongly at auction, with seven pieces reaching the HK$100 million benchmark.  

Regarding these little girls, the artist once mentioned them as self-portraits of his inner self, a dialogue with himself. The motif, then, came to reflect the artist's life journey from different periods. 

Yoshitomo Nara

Nara was born in 1959 in Hirosaki, Aomori, a remote town in Japan known for its snowy winters. Raised by busy working parents, he was lonely, sensitive, and introverted as a child, often immersing himself in his imaginative world indoors. 

He has reflected, "When you are a kid, you are too young to know you are lonely, sad, upset…Now I know I was." As an adolescent, Nara took refuge in pop culture, finding escape and empowerment through music, especially punk, with its scrappy, rebellious spirit. 

Some of his early works, therefore, feature the little girl with slanted eyes and a hint of anger, mixing cuteness and cunning, such as the aforementioned Knife Behind Back

The work was chosen as the cover image of Yoshitomo Nara's definitive 2020 monograph

On 11 March 2011, a powerful earthquake hit north-east Japan. Having grown up by the borders of the disaster zone, Nara was deeply traumatized and unable to pick up his brushes for months. When he returned to the studio, he decided to paint to bring happiness to people.

From there on, his artistic style significantly changed. He began to soften his figures' mischievous and hostile expressions, presenting a more meditative and introspective aesthetic. He has said, "In the past I would have an image that I wanted to create, and I would just do it. I would just get it finished. Now I take my time and work slowly and build up all these layers to find the best way."

As exemplified by I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (2017), the work reveals a patience in its making that belies the emotional complexity behind its creation. Exhibiting a formal harmony and sensitivity of color and brushwork, the figure’s face takes on an almost aqueous quality as it is made and unmade by the traces of Nara's brush. 

The title of the artwork, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, is derived from the 1974 album of the same name by British folk-rock duo Richard and Linda Thompson. Besides being exhibited extensively, the piece has adorned the cover of the artist's definitive 2020 monograph, underscoring its significance.

Lot 1532 | Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) | Le Peintre, Oil on canvas
Executed on 8 June 1963
92 x 60 cm

  • Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris
  • Galeria Maison Bernard, Caracas
  • Private Collection, Venezuela (acquired from the above circa 1980)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$66,000,000 - 90,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$66,000,000
Sold: HK$78,724,000 (around US$10.1 million)

Guaranteed to sell by an irrevocable bid, Pablo Picasso's Le Peintre (1963) was offered with an opening bid of HK$58 million. 

After five bids, it hammered to Asian chairman Wendy Lin's client with paddle number L0054 for HK$66 million – right at its pre-sale low estimate and might go to the third-party backer. 

With buyers' premium, its final price came to HK$78.7 million (around US$10.1 million), becoming the second-most expensive lot of the evening. 

Picasso often wore a blue-striped Breton shirt

Le Peintre is a rare example of a late work signed by the artist that has never been offered at auction. During Picasso's late years, between the 1960s and early 1970s, he threw himself into the theme of the artist at work. In 1963 alone, the year the present lot was created, he painted more than fifty works on this subject, revealing his obsession with the study of the vocation of an artist. 

While not explicitly identified as a self-portrait, the subject of the painter can be interpreted as autobiographical: as in other works in his painter series, Picasso clothes the figure in a blue striped Breton shirt – the shirt he wore so often that it would later be officially known as "The Picasso Breton Shirt". 

By then already in his nineties, Picasso was increasingly gripped by the feeling that he had "less and less time and more and more to say," including his role as an artist. 

The 1960s saw him often revisiting and reminiscing the great masters of the past, from Diego Velázquez and Rembrandt van Rijn to El Greco and Francisco Goya. There was one artist, though, who was less linked with Picasso but had been talked of by the artist as his patron saint: Van Gogh. 

Picasso in his studio in Mougins in the 1960s (the present work shown in the background)

The present work was exhibited at Foundation Beyeler, Basel in 2023

During his final decade, Picasso was obsessed with and hugely admired Van Gogh, much like that of Paul Cézanne earlier in his life. He was so fixated on the post-impressionist that he carried in his wallet for years the original news article detailing Van Gogh’s self-mutilation of his ear. And there was never any classic Picasso mockery or irony about this artist.

With the emblem of a yellow hat, the present work can be interpreted as a tribute to Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat series from 1887. Picasso’s application of chiaroscuro and quick, spontaneous brushstrokes might have also been inspired by Van Gogh. 

Since its creation, it has largely been kept private, only on short-term loan for museum exhibitions three times, including for Picasso: kunstenaar van de eeuw at Kunsthal Rotterdam in 1999, Picasso in Den Haag at Gemeentemuseum Den Haag from 2007 to 2008, and last year at the Fondation Beyeler exhibition Picasso. Artist and the Model: Last Paintings.

Vincent Van Gogh | Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat (1887) | The collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Lot 1547 | Claude Monet (1840-1926) | Route de Monte-Carlo, Oil on canvas
Executed in 1883
65.7 x 80.6 cm

  • Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie, Paris (acquired directly from the artist on 24 July 1886)
  • Durand-Ruel Galleries, New York (transferred from the above)
  • Alfred Atmore Pope, Cleveland (acquired from the above on 16 May 1893)
  • Durand-Ruel Galleries, New York (acquired from the above on 23 April 1895 and until at least 1949)
  • Marlborough Fine Art, London
  • Private Collection, Great Britain (acquired by circa 1954)
  • The Lefevre Gallery (Alex. Reid & Lefevre Ltd), London
  • Private Collection, Europe
  • Private Collection
  • Christie's, New York, 6 November 2007, Lot 34 (consigned by the above)
  • Acquavella Fine Arts, New York, 2016
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$45,000,000 - 65,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$51,000,000
Sold: HK$61,489,000 (around US$7.9 million)

The third-most highest price of the evening went to Claude Monet's Route de Monte-Carlo (1883), which sold for a final price with fees of HK$61.4 million (around US$7.9 million), within its pre-sale estimate between HK$45 and 65 million. 

Bidding for the lot opened at HK$32 million and quickly escalated to HK$42 million in five bids. There were mainly three bidders who showed interest in the work, each on the phone with: Wendy Lin, Alex Branczik (Chairman, Modern & Contemporary Art, Asia), and Jen Hua (Deputy Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and Chairman, China). 

After Branczik jumped from a bid of HK$44.5 million to HK$47 million, the only competitor left in the bidding battle was Lin, and the two went on to inch up the price by half-million increments. In the end, Branczik's client with paddle number L0053 won the work for a hammer of HK$51 million, or a final price of HK$61.4 million (US$7.9 million) with fees. 

Claude Monet 

Monet had a lifelong commitment to painting en plein air as he explored the impact of atmospheric conditions on light and color. In December 1883, Monet was nearing the completion of six large interior panels at the apartment of dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel. Having already been stifled by the indoor surroundings for a while, he realized how frustrated he was with this project, and said, "I cannot wait until I am out of all this, it has been a century since I last outdoors". 

Looking no further to breathe in nature, he impulsively departed to the Mediterranean with fellow Impressionist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who assured him of the "wonderful things awaiting them there."

With strange vegetation, exotic fragrances, and brilliant colors, this trip proved immensely liberating for Monet, as the unfamiliar landscape of the Riviera offered the painter limitless inspirations that sparked new pictorial imagination.

Route de Monte Carlo was one of the first two works executed by Monet on the shores of Monte Carlo, capturing his first glimpse and fascination with the region. The other work would be Pres Monte Carlo, painted from a spot along the same route, but facing towards the sea rather than the mountains. That work was last auctioned in 2016 at Sotheby's New York, selling for US$7.1 million.

Claude Monet | Pres Monte Carlo (1883) | Sold: US$7,082,000, Sotheby's New York, 2016

Of the evening's top ten highest-selling works, four places went to works by Western artists, including Renoir, Picasso, and Monet, whose canvas depicting his beloved Giverny sold for HK$20.4 million to take the tenth place. 

The Queen Of Polka Dots Yayoi Kusama's demands remained strong at auction, with three lots by the Japanese artist on the list, including a yellow and black self-portrait that sold for HK$36.1 million, a Pumpkin sculpture, and a tiled-relief Pumpkin sculpture. 

The top ten prices achieved at the auction:

Lot 1542 | Yayaoi Kusama (b.1929) | Portrait, Acrylic on canvas
Execute in 2015
146 x 112.8 cm

  • Ota Fine Arts
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2015

Estimate: HK$38,000,000 - 48,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$34,000,000
Sold: HK$41,590,000 (US$5.3 million)

Lot 1528 | Zao Wou-ki (1920-2013) | 04.10.85, Oil on canvas
Executed on 4 October 1985
162 x 130 cm

  • Fuji Television Gallery, Tokyo
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner 

Estimate: HK$35,000,000 - 45,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$33,000,000
Sold: HK$40,380,000 (US$5.2 million)

Lot 1536 | Yayoi Kusama (b.1929) | Pumpkin, Urethane on fiberglass reinforced plastic
Executed in 2019
120 x 138 x 138 cm

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

Estimate: HK$38,000,000 - 48,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$29,000,000
Sold: HK$36,145,000 (US$4.6 million)

Lot 1544 | Yoshitomo Nara (b.1959) | Untitled, Acrylic on board
Executed in 2008
231.1 x 186.7 x  12.7 cm

  • Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
  • Private Collection 
  • Christie's Hong Kong, 24 November 2012, Lot 30
  • Private Collection, Hong Kong
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner 

Estimate: HK$28,000,000 - 35,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$27,000,000
Sold: HK$33,120,000 (US$4.2 million)

Lot 1525 | Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 - 1919) | Un Jardin à Sorrente, Oil on canvas
Executed in 1881
67 x 82 cm

  • Durand-Ruel, Paris and New York (acquired from the artist in November 1892)
  • William and Augustus L. Putnam, Boston (acquired from the above in December 1910 and until at least 1948)
  • Mrs Katherine Winthrop, New York (acquired by June 1954)
  • Arnold Kirkeby, New York (acquired from the above through Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York in August 1955)
  • Parke-Bernet, New York, Masterpieces of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists from the Arnold Kirkeby Collection, 19 November 1958, Lot 15 (consigned by the above) 
  • Farkas Foundation, New York (acquired from the above sale)
  • Christie's, New York, 15 May 1979, Lot 13 (consigned by the above) 
  • Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above sale) 
  • Private Collection, Europe (by descent from the above)
  • Sotheby's, London, 21 June 2016, Lot 13
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner 

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 - 16,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$19,750,000
Sold: HK$24,347,500 (US$3.1 million)

Lot 1537 | Yayoi Kusama (b.1929) | Pumpkin, Tiles on FRP, glue and steel
Executed in 2016
230 x 230 x 35 cm

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

Estimate: HK$24,000,000 - 34,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$19,500,000
Sold: HK$24,045,000 (US$3.1 million)

Lot 1526 | Claude Monet (1840-1926) | Inondation à Giverny, Oil on canvas
Executed in 1886
65 x 81.3 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Michel Monet, Giverny (acquired by descent from the above)
  • Wildenstein & Co., Inc., London (acquired by 1952)
  • Henrik Nordmark, Stockholm (acquired from the above through Svensk Engelska Konstgalleriet, Stockholm in February 1954 and until circa 1971)
  • Galerie Koller, Zurich, 25-26 May 1979, Lot 5180
  • Christie's, New York, 6 November 1979, Lot 16
  • James F. Scott, Charlottesville, Virginia (acquired from the above sale) 
  • Sotheby's, New York, 14 May 2018, Lot 42 (consigned by the above) 
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner 

Estimate: HK$15,500,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$16,500,000
Sold: HK$20,415,000 (US$2.6 million)

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction
Date: 5 April 2024
Number of Lots: 41
Sold: 40
Unsold: 1
Sale Rate: 97%
Sale Total: HK$634,019,500 (US$81.3 million)