Move over London—the Asian auction market is exploding

All eyes will be on the high-value Hong Kong sales this weekend

The Asian auction market has surged during the pandemic Illustration: Katherine Hardy / Photo:Alex Sheldon

The Asian auction market has surged during the pandemic Illustration: Katherine Hardy / Photo:Alex Sheldon

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The forthcoming London and Hong Kong auctions show the Asian market continuing its upward trajectory.

In the run-up to this month’s auctions, all eyes will certainly be on Hong Kong. In a significant shift, Sotheby’s contemporary art auction there this week is worth up to HK$751m (around £71m)—easily beating out its London session, estimated at £35m-£54m.

Indeed, the composition of the two sales is very different. The London session largely reflects the more traditional end of the contemporary market, despite it being held during Frieze week. Works by Gerhardt Richter (three large abstracts from the Helga and Walther Lauffs collection); Melotti; Baselitz; Auerbach and Gursky figure in the sale, along with a few more cutting-edge names such as Salman Toor, Oli Epp and Trey Abdella. And then, to shake up the mix, there is THE Banksy, the one shredded back in 2018 and now reappearing on the market with an, er, enhanced pre-sale estimate of £4m-£6m (it made £1.1m back then, after half passing through the shredder...)

Contrast Sotheby’s 9 October Hong Kong auctions, which reflect just how important the market for international art has become in Asia. Alongside such Asian stalwarts as Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Wei and Zeng Fanzhi, Sotheby’s is fielding works by hot young artists such as Joel Mesler, Jadé Fadojutimi, Eddie Martinez, Nicolas Party and Amoako Boafo as well as other more established “brands” such as Adrian Ghenie, Roy Lichtenstein and Joan Mitchell.

The headline act is Jean-Michel Basquait’s Untitled (Red Warrior, 1982), showing a violently gesticulating figure in red (a colour which is always very auspicious in China). It is estimated at HK$150m-$200m (around £14m-£18m), and is one of 17 “premium lots”—which means bidders have to register first in order to bid on it—another indication of how much richer these Asian sessions are becoming.

In March this year, Christie’s sold another warrior painting, also dating from 1982, for $41.8m, setting a new record for a work of Western art in Asia. But this month Christie’s is not holding a contemporary art sale in Hong Kong, instead live-streaming its London auction from Hong Kong and New York on 15 October. The 41-lot sale is estimated at £46.3m-£66.2m, including lot 14, NFTs for Yuga Labs’ three Bored Apes, freshly minted this year and carrying estimates of £800,000-£1.2m...

Finally, in Sotheby’s Hong Kong Impressionist art sale, also on 9 October, a Van Gogh still life of gladioli is being offered, carrying a target of HK$70m-HK$100m (£6.3m-£9m). Of course, Van Gogh is hardly new to Asian eyes, since the Japanese appetite for the artiste maudit reached its apogee in 1990. But he is the ultimate brand name in Asia, and this is the first time one of his paintings has appeared at auction in Hong Kong.

All of this bears out the figures from Artnet’s latest Intelligence report. They found that just 158 works of Western artists were sold in the territory between 1991 and 2004; in the first half of 2021, it had jumped to 967. No doubt those figures will balloon even more, and no wonder Sotheby’s has dispatched top specialists Alex Branczik and Max Moore to its Hong Kong headquarters!

UPDATE 11 October: Sotheby’s Hong Kong contemporary art sale on 9 October made HK$586,862,001 (£55.3m) with four of the 35 lots bought in, falling short of its pre-sale low target. Prices remained in line with expectations for the major lots; the Basquiat Untitled (Red Warrior) 1982, hammered at a disappointing HK$140m, so with fees making HK$162.9m(£15.4m). In the Impressionist sale the Van Gogh—the first to be sold at auction in Asia—fetched HK71m (£6.9m), under its estimate of HK$ 70m-HK$100m.