Curator of Sotheby's Unorthodox Sales – Yuki Terase Challenges the Boundaries of Contemporary Art

With so many auctions happening around the world, we know very well how almost everything can go under the hammer. Just when you think you have seen it all, Yuki Terase, Head of Contemporary Art, Sotheby's Asia, shows you what 'sky is the limit' really means. Last year, she surprised everybody by offering the concept of Xuzhen Supermarket, an art installation that replicates a Chinese convenience store. The concept was sold for HK$2m (US$260,000) at Sotheby's Hong Kong, marking the first time a concept is sold as an artwork at auction.

Yuki Terase, Head of Contemporary Art, Sotheby's Asia

This season, Yuki Tersase continues to bring wow factors to the salerooms by taking an innovative, boundary-pushing approach. The diversified offering even includes items you would not expect to see at Sotheby's Contemporary Art, such as a demountable house, furniture and drawings of popular manga and anime. The Value talked to her about her thoughts and ideas on curating these 'unorthodox' sales.

Yuki Terase (left) and Xuzhen (middle) in front of the installation art Xuzhen Supermarket

Inside Xuzhen Supermarket

Q: This season, Sotheby’s offers a 6 x 6 Demountable House by Jean Prouvé. Why do you choose to offer a furniture house as an artwork?

Yuki: Jean Prouvé is one of the most famous French architects and designers. He created many practical, functional art pieces that everybody uses. We introduce this large piece by Jean Prouvé at our Contemporary Art Evening Sale. It’s a house that was made for French families who lost their family due to the bombing during wartime. A lot of them had nowhere to live and didn’t have a roof above their head. So Jean Prouvé came up with this idea of a demountable house. Due to the lack of supply during the war, he didn’t create as many houses as he wished for. Very few surviving examples in good condition.

Yuki: It’s an art piece that produced for functional use back then. But after half of a century, people see it as an avant-garde artwork created in that time. It has very simple lines and construction, easy for everybody to build. It’s an important piece of work that's usually put into the design category. But for me, the definition is very blurry. People who appreciate contemporary art or object would equally appreciate his design.

Q: This year Sotheby’s presents design art at an unprecedented scale in Asia? Why?

Yuki: Over the past few seasons, we always have something that people didn’t expect that we would do. Design art is something that I have wanted to do, and I think this season is the right timing. Last season, we had a little session of furniture art offered at our contemporary day sale and it was received very well. A lot of people commented that this is precisely what they are looking for and they think we should do a bigger scale. With increasing Asian collectors participating in our design sales in New York, London and Paris, we feel there is a demand but the supply does not necessarily match the demand here.

Le Corbusier, Diabolo Standing Lamp. Estimate: HK$450,000 – 700,000

Pierre Jeanneret, Pair of Easy Armchairs. Estimate: HK$260,000 – 400,000

Q: Sotheby’s also offers a selection of nine manga collectibles. Traditionally, these drawings are viewed as products of pop culture instead of contemporary artwork. Why do you bring them to saleroom?

Yuki: I think the distinction, definition is just getting very blurry. Manga is an important part of our culture. It originated in Japan but was exported to other Asian countries. A lot of children in Hong Kong or the mainland growing up watching anime like Doraemon. It’s something very personal. I think there is no rule saying that this cannot be contemporary art. British Museum is also holding a manga exhibition right now. I think it’s something that we can offer at auction because when people look at these drawings, they immediately recognise it’s from their favourite shows like Pikachu or One Piece or Dragon Ball, and get excited about it. 

It is difficult to get people’s attention if you keep repeating yourself. I always try to have the kind of wow factors in our sales that people feel like opening a lucky bag when they look at what we offer. And this season especially, when you look through our catalogue, there must be something you like because we really have a variety of things from Western, Asian to cultural or very traditional. 


Pokemon by Olm Inc.. Pikachu Animation Cel and Sketch (2 Works). Estimate: HK$40,000-50,000

One Piece by Toei Animation. Monkey D Luffy Animation Cel Signed by Eiichiro Oda. Estimate: HK$40,000-50,000

Dragon Ball by Toei Animation. Super Saiyan Animation Cel. Estimate: HK$20,000-30,000

This April, THE KAWS ALBUM was sold for a whopping HK$115.96m (US$14.78m) at Sotheby's 100%-sold NIGO sale in Hong Kong. It set a new auction record for the artist, far surpassing its previous record by Untitled (Fatal Group) that sold for HK$21.2m in 2018. A major part of the success can be attributed to Yuki's forward-looking vision. This season, Sotheby's is offering another KAWS that is formerly in the NIGO collection and it is expected to fetch HK$48m-68m (US$6.1m-8.67m).

THE KAWS ALBUM sold for a record-breaking HK$115m at Sotheby's in April

Q: What’s so special about this KIMPSONS#1 that Sotheby’s is offering? Why did KAWS choose The Simpsons, such a popular culture icon, to create the KIMPSONS series?

Yuki: This is the largest KIMPSONS canvas ever created. The size is very magnificent and impressive when you see it in person. There was a collaborative process between the two back then that NIGO would set out an idea of what KAWS should be doing or producing. KIMPSONS is pretty much NIGO’s idea. It was formerly in the collection of NIGO along with other paintings like The KAWS ALBUM and other KIMPSONS paintings that we sold in April.

KAWS takes after the lineage of the artistic process of many pop artists early on like Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol. He also takes other popular characters from pop culture like Disney. I think using iconic characters to turn them into artistic expression is a golden formula for a lot of pop artists.

Q: People view KAWS work as plagiarism or parody because many of his works are created out of well-known icons. How do you justify its value?

Yuki: I think the value of his work can be justified in a way that it was created by someone who is such a cultural phenomenon. I would say he is an iconic artist of our generation. He merges fine art, street art, fashion together and made them into something in the mainstream. Fine art has always been appreciated by a very niche group. But when KAWS’ sculpture was on display in Victoria Harbour, we saw a lot of people came to take photos, including those who don’t know many other artists.

KAWS: HOLIDAY was on display in Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong this March

KAWS' UNTITLED (KIMPSONS) was sold for HK$21.75m at Sotheby's in April

KAWS' UNTITLED (KIMPSONS #3) was sold for HK$20.57m at Sotheby's in April

Yuki: In the present painting, KIMPSONS#1, the brushwork is very precise and detailed. He did it all himself. That’s a true artistic process so I don’t think his works are less in artistic value. For example, Andy Warhol used silkscreen print to create portraits of famous people. He got criticised at the time. Now people think it’s an important part of art history. I think contemporary art is not about meticulous brushwork or hours and hours of working. I think contemporary art is about challenging the boundaries of what contemporary art should be. KAWS is definitely challenging the boundaries because he spans art into fashion and culture that nobody has ever really gone that field.

Q: From our general perception, Asian collectors prefer blue-chip masterpieces by Western big names. Have you noticed any changes in their preferences or behaviour?

Yuki: I think Asia is a very young market. Besides the group of collectors who are more conservative, there is a group of new clients entering the market and they are collecting according to their own aesthetics. For example, 50% of the buyers participated in the NIGO sale are younger than 40. This is only possible in Asia. What’s happening is that many self-made entrepreneurs, second generation or third generation of art collectors are starting to have their own preference. A lot of them are rapidly into more diversified art in general.

Meanwhile, I also have some very top clients who I have never thought they would be bidding on KAWS were bidding very high in various sales and the NIGO sale. Whereas for young collectors that we usually think they only like street art, they would also be intrigued by historical objects. So it’s not like these collectors are separated into two different groups. 

Q: Do you think you are pushing the boundaries of art collecting in Asia and challenging our conventional understanding of contemporary art in the region?

Yuki: Yes! You basically just summarised what I want to say. I think Asia is a fast-evolving market. I moved to Hong Kong five years ago. Even back then, what we were offering is completely different. And those people participating in auctions are also completely different. Asia evolves at a fast speed which is unprecedented compared to the rest of the world. We offered Western pieces at Sotheby’s in 2016 October, which was the first time that we offered any Western big names in the evening sale. Now three years on, half of our evening sale is Western artwork. That really shows how rapidly the market is evolving.

Preview for Sotheby's April auction has attracted many visitors and journalists  

Yuki: By pushing the boundaries of contemporary art, we have also achieved good results, which can be seen in several of our previous white-glove sales. I think Asian collectors have reacted well if you provide them with something exciting. I would rather hear people saying, ‘Oh! How come you have this in your auction? It’s wonderful!’ than ‘Oh, you have this again.’ I don’t want people to find our sales boring.

My goal is also to position Hong Kong as an international platform that all global clients will pay attention to. This season, because of the Marc Jacobs collection, Jean Prouvé and the Nara painting that we are offering, we have a lot of Western collectors paying attention to our sales. I think it’s good for Hong Kong because promoting Asian artists also requires a global platform to put them together. I really want Asia to be one of the major contemporary art markets in the world and I think it’s becoming so.

Yoshitomo Nara's Knife Behind Back (estimate on request) is going to lead this season's sale

John Currin paintings from Marc Jacobs collection will be offered at Sotheby's this season

Auction details

Auction house: Sotheby's Hong Kong

  • Moutarderie Nationale: The Gillion Crowet Collection | 6 October 2019, 18:30
  • Contemporary Art Evening Sale | 6 October 2019, 19:00
  • Contemporary Art Day Sale | 7 October 2019, 10:30

Venue: Hall 1, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre