Nicolas Chow on Sotheby's Hong Kong's HK$350m New Hybrid 'Silent Auction'

Sotheby’s Hong Kong recently launched their new hybrid 'Silent Auction' - In Confidence: Selected Masterpieces. A total of 13 lots estimated in excess of HK$350m (US$45.2m) are offered, with lot values ranging from HK$5m- 70m. How does this silent auction combine the thrill of live auctions and the discretion of private sales? What are the reasons behind this innovative idea? Why did Sotheby’s choose to present such expensive work in this sale rather than saving them for their upcoming sale week? Are we going to see more ‘hybrid’ sales from Sotheby’s?

We have invited Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, to tell us more about the sale. 

Nicolas Chow|Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia

Yoshitomo Nara, Ice Candy Lollipop 1998, acrylic on canvas| 109.9 x 120 cm 

An Exceptional and Large Imperial White Jade Teapot and Cover, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period|20.5 cm

Is this 'Silent Auction' a kind of sealed-bid auction? 

Yes, it’s a sale model that people know from big land deals but there are some differences. Firstly, in regular sealed bid auctions, whatever price you state is the price you’ll pay.

Let’s say the highest bid is HK$10m and the underbidder says HK$5m. The winner still has to pay the winning bid price of HK$10m. 

Here you’ll only have to pay one increment above the underbidder, just like putting an absentee bid in regular sales. For instance, the highest bid is HK$10m and each increment is set at HK$100,000. If the underbidder’s offer is HK$5m, the winner only has to pay the winning bid price of HK$5.1m plus buyer’s premium. 

If there is only one bidder, the winning bid price would be the low estimate. 

Secondly, private auctions usually give you only one chance to bid. Our 'Silent Auction' offers you two. 

Yayoi Kusama, Untitled 1960, oil on board|61 x 60.5 cm 

Zao Wou-Ki, 16.01.80 1980, oil on canvas (triptych)|46 x 105cm

Why are people given two chances to put in bids?

We want to give a little bit of excitement to the auction process and at the same time protect our sellers. 

Are things like premium lots and estimates also present in this sale? 

Everything is upon request. If you are interested, you call the department or email and find out the starting bid. For premium lots, we apply the same screening procedures as regular sales. 

You can fill in a commission bid form from our website (available here) and send it to us through email. The bids are reviewed by a private auditor to ensure a fair process. 

Jadeite and Diamond Necklace 

Pair of 15.09 carat each Pear-Shaped Fancy Vivid Yellow Diamond and Diamond Earrings 

Both public auctions and private sales have their own advantages to consignors and buyers. Why did you choose to adopt this new sale format of combining the two in this sale? 

During the pandemic, public auctions cannot really take place because of travelling and gathering restrictions. What we understand in this present climate is that we do have a lot of willing buyers and sellers at the top level. This is a hybrid model that we came up with which can look after the interest of both parties. 

In fact what we’ve seen in the process of building this sale is that we have sold two major works, one of which sold for higher than what we could not sell it for a couple of years ago. So we know there’s an appetite. 

We cannot disclose our sale results but I am very optimistic. From yesterday until this moment of the interview, which hasn’t even been 24 hours, we have already recevied a few quite strong bids.

Zhang Daqian, Lotus in the Wind, 1973, ink and colour on paper, framed|65.8 x 209.3 cm

10.26 carat Oval Fancy Deep Orangy Pink Diamond and Diamond Ring 


The 'Silent Auction' presents works spanning across several categories from Chinese Works of Art and Paintings to Modern and Contemporary Art, Jewellery and Whisky. And with lot values ranging from HK$5m to 70m, the works are masterpieces which can be featured in evening sales. Based on what criteria did you choose these works to be featured in the sale? 

Some people are not receptive to private sales. Others, in a climate like this, worry about their objects not selling or selling badly. The sale offers confidentiality and excitement which have attracted a lot of good sellers. 

There’s also a limit to how much we want to offer a couple of months before our July spring sale. We don’t want to overload the market. It’s just the perfect quantity to feed the appetite of collectors looking for great material without actually taking any steam out of our July sale.

Zao Wou-Ki, 01.05.92 1992, oil on canvas| 81.5 x 100 cm

The Dalmore 1973, Cask # 8 – A Masterpiece in the Making (The winning bidder has the opportunity to be part of curating the final chapter in the creation of this masterpiece, working directly with Dalmore Master Distiller, Richard Paterson.) 

This 'Silent Auction' can be seen as an experiment. Is this going to be a one-off auction or will it be done again?

Absolutely. I think we already know we are going to do it again. I think there is a very strong possibility it’s going to become another standard in the marketplace. 

Could you introduce to us one or two highlight lots from the sale? 

The first of the three stars of this sale is Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline – Big Family: Family No. 2, created in 1993. It is the second earliest work from Zhang Xiaogang’s era-defining Bloodline – Big Family series. With the first work from the series residing in the Tokushima Art Museum, Japan, the present painting is the earliest masterpiece in private hands. 

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline - Big Family: Family No. 2 1993, oil on canvas|110 x 130 cm

Masterpiece of Zhang Daqian Previously from the Collection of Tai Jingnong |Zhang Daqian, Lush Mountains in Misty Gleam 1967, splashed ink and colour on gold paper, framed|128.2 x 63.5 cm 

Next is Zhang Daqian’s Lush Mountains in Misty Gleam, a gift dedicated to the parents of a close friend of the artist, notable scholar Tai Jingnong. 

The painting was created in 1967 when Zhang Daqian reached the pinnacle of his splashed-ink-and-colour style. Executed on a large gold paper, Zhang masterfully splashed bold hues onto the paper, flowing freely with only a touch of guidance from the brush, then adding a thick layer of mineral pigment to create a glistening surface. It combines aspects of an abstract approach with traditional ink painting techniques to depict a verdant, steep mountainside, a scene from Tai’s hometown.

Last but not least is the carved celadon-glazed 'Dragon' Vase, Meiping from the Period of Qianlong. It is hard to find something stronger in monochrome porcelain from the Qing dynasty. 

A Large and Exceptionally Rare Carved Celadon-Glazed 'Dragon' Vase, Meiping, Seal Mark and Period of Qianlong|35.3 cm 

The design- five dragons, is a symbol of the Emperor. If you look at some of the Meipings we’ve sold in the past, often record-breakers, you don’t see so many monochromes. And as far as we know, in all the major museums, we haven’t tracked down one that is similar. 

The closest example is the Fonthill ‘Dragon’ Jar we sold in 2014 for HK$94.2m which previously belonged to the collection of the Idemitsu Museum of Arts in Tokyo. 

The vase presented this time is something well-known that Sotheby’s Hong Kong sold at auction in 1997. I’ve never had the chance to see it because I joined Sotheby’s in 1999. It was wonderful to have a chance to find and handle it.

Auction details

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: In Confidence: Selected Masterpieces
2020/5/15 -23:

  • Open for bidding.
  • Bidders who place bids between 15 -22 May will be notified if they have been outbid. 
  • Bidders who place bids during the final 24 hours of the auction will not be notified if they have been outbid.

2020/5/23(Hong Kong time 6pm):

  • After the auction closes, the bidder who has placed the highest bid shall be the winning bidder. 
  • Notwithstanding the highest bid submitted, the winning bid price (i.e. the auction hammer price) payable by the winning bidder will be an amount that is one increment above the second highest bid, or the amount of the reserve if there are no other bids. 
  • The winning bidder shall pay the winning bid price plus buyer’s premium.