‘Is the Red-Hot Market for Zao Wou-Ki Cooling Down?’ — Top-Notch Zao Masterpiece Failed to Sell at Christie’s Evening Sale

Christie’s kicked off its Hong Kong spring auctions with the highly anticipated 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale) which was expected to be led by blue-chip masterpieces by Zao Wou-Ki, whose work has been highly sought after in the market in recent years and pulled off several record-breaking results.

Surprisingly, of all seven Zao’s paintings offered at the sale, one was bought-in whereas three others were hammered down below estimates. Is it an indicator suggesting that the craze for the abstract master is starting to cool down?

Triptych 1987-1988 is the second largest painting by Zao to ever be offered on the market

Leading the sale was Triptych 1987-1988, a monumental painting by Zao Wou-Ki that carried a presale estimate of HK$120m-150m. Measuring 200 x 486cm, Triptych 1987-1988 is the second largest painting by Zao ever to be offered on the market. The largest work ever by Zao, Juin-Octobre 1985, was sold for a record-shattering price at HK$510m (US$65m) in Hong Kong last year.

The present painting is one of only 20 large triptychs created by Zao Wou-Ki that are known to exist. Of all 20 large triptychs, three are now in museum collections and seven are in the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation, leaving only ten in private collection.

Triptych 1987-1988

Michelangelo’s Genesis - Creation of Adam

According to the auction house, the large-scale Triptych 1987-1988 was created out of the synthesis between Zao’s knowledge of Chinese painting technique and his Western sensitivity to colour and light. The composition of the painting harkens back to Michelangelo’s Genesis - Creation of Adam. The painting was the centrepiece of the auction house’s spring season in Hong Kong and some people had hoped it could reach the HK$200m benchmark.

The auctioneer opened the bidding at HK$75m and the price passed the HK$100m in a blink after several bidders showing strong interest. There were mainly three contestants: a gentleman in the room and two telephone bidders who were respectively represented by Xin Li (Deputy Chairman, Christie’s) and Ada Ong from the Taipei branch.

Xin Li (with her arm raised), Deputy Chairman, Christie’s Asia

As the price reached HK$151m, Ada Ong’s client withdrew from the competition, which left the room bidder against Li’s client. After a prolonged bidding battle, the painting was hammered down at HK$155m and sold for HK$178m after premium (US$22.6m).

Another top lot was Zao’s 02.01.65 from the artist’s “Hurricane Period”. Measuring 162 x 200cm, the painting is an example showing how Zao integrated the energy and movement of Chinese cursive calligraphy with Western abstract expressionism after his trip with Pierre Soulages to New York, Japan and Hong Kong.

The painting was previously offered at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2010 and sold for HK$20.82m, surpassing its estimate of HK$8m-12m. The auction house didn’t reveal the estimate for this time, but it was reported to be HK$95m-100m. Yet, the painting failed to sell and bought in at HK$90m.

Also from the artist’s “Hurricane Period”, 17.01.66 was estimated at HK$75m-95m. In 17.01.66, the brushwork is grand, proud, and vigorous, moving both horizontally and vertically to convey strong motion and energy. This work was much loved by the artist himself during his lifetime. It is one of which he had retained in his personal collection for many years.


The painting was guaranteed by a third party, which means it was sure to be sold. The auctioneer opened the bidding at HK$60m and put the hammer down at HK$85m, selling the painting for HK$98.55m (US$12.5m)after premium. It realised the second highest price at the sale and the buyer was the telephone bidder of Rebecca Wei, Christie's Asia President.

Rebecca Wei (the middle), Christie's Asia President

Except 11.03.60 was hammered down beyond its estimate, the following three Zao’s paintings were hammered down below their estimated price range:
Estimated at HK$28m-38m, 21.04.64 was hammered down at HK$23m
Estimated at HK$20m-25m, Nu couché (Reclining Nude) was hammered down at HK15.5m
Estimated at HK$12m-16m, Untitled was hammered down at HK10m


Nu couché (Reclining Nude)

Nevertheless, if we set aside the results of Zao’s work, the sale actually pulled off a satisfactory sell-through rate of 91% and a number of lots were sold for prices far exceeding estimates. It also set the auction records for several artists including Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara.

Sleepless Night (Cat) (1999) by Yoshitomo Nara was sold for HK$34.92m, surpassing the estimate of HK$18m-28m. In Sleepless Night (Cat), an innocent child is centrally positioned on the canvas in front of a reduced background. Despite its simplicity, the narrative is sophisticated. The black background introduces a texture that suggests the child is under the shroud of the night.

Though the sale results of Zao work fell short of expectation, it is too early to draw a definitive conclusion from the performance of a single sale to suggest that the frenzy for Zao has cooled down. We shall keep an eye on the sales of other Zao paintings in upcoming auctions.

Top five lots

Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013). Triptych 1987-1988

Created in: 1987 - 1988
Size: 200 x 486cm
European private collection (acquired directly from the artist)
Estimate: HK$120,000,000 - 150,000,000
Hammer price: HK$155,000,000
Price realised: HK$178,000,000

Zao Wou-Ki (1923 - 2013). 17.01.66

Created in: 1966
Size: 146 x 114 cm

  • Collection of the Artist
  • Private Collection, Europe
  • de Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner
  • This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki, dated 25 June 2012. This work is referenced in the archive of the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki and will be included in the artist’s forthcoming catalogue raisonne prepared by Francoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (information provided by Fondation Zao Wou-Ki).

Estimate: HK$75,000,000 - HK$90,000,000
Hammer price: HK$85,000,000
Price realised: HK$98,550,000

Chu Teh-chun (1920-2014). No. 229

Lot no.: 50
Created in: 1966
Size: 130 x 195cm

  • Private Collection, Paris, France
  • Private Collection, Asia
  • Anon. Sale, Christie’s Hong Kong, 24 May 2014, Lot 6
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$28,000,000 - 35,000,000
Hammer price: HK$32,000,000
Price realised: HK$38,395,000

Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959). Sleepless Night (Cat)

Lot no.: 76
Created in: 1999
Size: 120 x 110cm

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

Estimate: HK$18,000,000 - 28,000,000
Hammer price: HK$29,000,000
Price realised: HK$34,925,000

Zhou Chunya (b. 1955). Stone Series - The Tree Connected to Stone

Lot no.: 72
Created in: 1993
Size:195 x 130cm

  • Anon. Sale, Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 9 October 2006, Lot 1730
  • Private Collection, Asia
  • Anon. Sale, Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 5 April 2014, Lot 150
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$18,000,000 - 24,000,000
Hammer price: HK$27,000,000
Price realised: HK$32,525,000

Auction summary

Auction house: Christie's Hong Kong
Sale: 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale)
Sale date: 25th May 2019
Lots offered: 69
Sold: 63
Unsold: 6
Sold by lots: 91%
Sale total: HK$858,077,500