When Amedeo Modigliani’s 1919 painting went under hammer at HK$235 million ($30 million) following an intense bidding war at the jam-packed sale room in Sotheby’s Hong Kong, it should’ve been a celebratory moment.
The work sparked lively sparring among two phone bidders and one in-room bidder at the sale, Thursday (October 5), before selling to “the lady in the room,” as auctioneer Oliver Barker announced to an applauding crowd, for HK$273 million ($34.8million) including fees.
And the star lot of the highly anticipated sale of the collection of Chinese mega collectors Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei not only set an auction record for Modigliani in Asia, it also became the most valuable modern western work ever sold in the region, as well as the third-most expensive western art work of any category to be sold in Asia. (Sources on the ground said former Sotheby’s Asia chair Patti Wong won the bid but an email to her assistant went unanswered before press time.)
The auction of the collection of the billionaire founders of Shanghai’s Long Museum, “A Long Journey: A Selection from the Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei Collection,” also achieved the highest total for any single-owner sale in Asia, with a sale total at HK$544.5 million ($69.5 million, including fees).
What could be wrong?
Well, upon closer inspection of the sales data, it was impossible to spin the auction results as anything but a disappointment, even for the house’s executives. Even the Modigliani—for all its record-smashing stats—was a dispiriting trade when you consider its history.
In fact, it wasn’t just the sale of the Long Museum founders’ collection that was a letdown. Including fees, results of the nearly six-and-a-half hours (with intermission) of Sotheby’s Hong Kong evening art sales, including contemporary and modern evening sales, did not meet fees-free presale expectations. With sell-through rates below 80 percent across all three sales and many premium lots unsold, with gossip and chatter about the discouraging results circulating after the sale, unsurprisingly. One Asian art market insider called the sale a “bloodbath,” while another deemed it “terrible.”
It was uncertain how much the sale results were impacted by the macroeconomic environment in the region and globally, particularly that of China.
But just how “terrible” was it? Take the Long Museum collection sale. The hammer total, at HK$455 million ($58 million), was just 60 percent of the low presale expectation of HK$747 million ($95.4 million). The sale price of the Modigliani painting, inflated by fees, still did not meet the presale estimate in the region of $45 million (HK$350 million to HK$470 million).
The painting was acquired at the A. Alfred Taubman collection sale at Sotheby’s in New York in November 2015, when it commanded $42.8 million, well above the estimated $25 million. The 2023 hammer price, at HK$235 million, was only 67 percent of the low estimate (and of course $8 million less than the price last achieved at auction).
As a house-guaranteed lot trading well below the presale estimate, Sotheby’s will have to match the difference between the sale price of $34.8 million and the guaranteed amount. Art market observers discussing the sale on social media estimated that Sotheby’s will have to pay up more than $10 million. Sotheby’s declined to comment on the guarantee.
Among the 40 lots of modern and contemporary international art on offer originally, one lot (Wang Xingwei’s painting , estimated at HK$2 million to $3 million/$255,400 to $383,100) was withdrawn prior to the sale.
A total of 10 lots were bought in, including premium lots such as a Yayoi Kusama sculpture (estimate HK$22 million to HK$28 million), Léonard Tsuguharau Foujita’s painting (estimate HK$40 million to HK$60 million), David Hockney’s canvas work (estimate HK$42 million to HK$55 million), and Zao Wou-ki’s abstract painting 10.03.78 (HK$32 million to HK$50 million).
Rashid Johnson’s almost faced the same fate. The initially unsold work was back for sale as Barker re-opened bidding for the work later in the auction. It swiftly went under hammer at HK$2.8 million ($357,555), about 70 percent of the low estimate of HK$4 million. The work eventually sold for HK$3.6 million ($459,714) including fees.
Some Bright Spots
To be sure, the Long Museum collection sale also had some promising results. It achieved top prices for four other western artists in Asia—Jonas Wood, Alex Katz, René Magritte, and Mark Bradford.
(1999) by the late Japanese Surrealist artist Tetsuya Ishida, who is currently having his New York solo debut with Gagosian, sold for more than HK$4 million ($567,538), nearly four times the sale price achieved in 2009. Miriam Cahn’s painting (2013) sold for HK$2 million ($259,446), with a hammer price at HK$1.6 million that was 2.7 times the presale estimate.
Separately, the modern evening sale achieved a total at HK$202 million ($25.8 million) after fees, against a low estimate of HK$203 million ($26 million). The contemporary evening sale totaled HK$352.7 million after fees, against a low estimate of HK$407 million ($51.9 million).
For more detailed post-sale data analysis, stay tuned for Artnet News PRO’s By the Numbers report and our The Back Room newsletter, both publishing tomorrow.
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