Despite setting a new record for the highest price fetched by any single-owner auction in Asia, the sale of works from the collection of mainland China’s Long Museum at Sotheby’s Hong Kong last week (5 October) proved lacklustre, netting 544.5m Hong Kong dollars (with fees), or $69.5m—well below its pre-sale estimate of 745m to 1bn Hong Kong dollars ($95.9m-$135.5m, calculated without fees). The hammer total was 455m Hong Kong dollars ($58m). Ten of the 39 lots went unsold, for a sell-through rate of 74%.
‘A Long Journey: A Selection from the Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei Collection’ was part of a trio of underperforming sales that kicked off Sotheby’s Hong Kong autumn auctions, with evening sales of contemporary and Modern art respectively garnering HKD 352.7m Hong Kong dollars and 202m Hong Kong dollars, also short of their estimates albeit less dramatically than the Long sale.
“The overall performance of this auction was lower than expected,” says Ray Dong, the director of the Art Market Research Center at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts. This was despite heavy promotion in China by Sotheby’s. “It’s hard to use marketing to dramatically adjust buyers’ enthusiasm,” he says. Dong highlights the poor performance of the sale’s star—Amedeo Modigliani’s Paulette Jourdain (1919)—which made $34.8m (with fees) to an unidentified collector, understood by The Art Newspaper to be a client of the art adviser and former Sotheby’s Asia president Patti Wong.
This price is considerably under the $42.8m (with fees) that Liu bought the Modigliani for in 2015 at Sotheby’s New York. Still, it is now the highest price for any Modern Western work sold at auction in Asia. “The most exciting works in this auction, including two of the most expensive works, Margaret and Modigliani, hammered successfully, proving that the Asian market continues to chase high-end products,” says Dong. He is also referring to René Magritte’s Le miroir universel, which made $9.9m (with fees) against a low estimate of $9.5m, to an Asian collector. Auction records were set for both artists in Asia.
The sale also set new Asian records for a further three Western artists, all of whom are living—Mark Bradford, Jonas Wood and Alex Katz—all around or below the low estimate. Bradford’s L.A. (2019) sold for $3.7m against a $3.8m to $6.3m estimate, and Katz’s On Time (2001), estimated between $1.5m to $2.3m, sold for $1.4m, both to Asian collectors. Wood’s M.S.F. Fish Pot #4 sold for $1.9m, against an estimate of $1.2m-$1.7m to a collector in the room. According to a Sotheby’s spokesperson, 75% of the sale’s registrants were Asian, though bids came from 25 countries and regions.
While a sluggish economy can explain the general underperformance across all sales last week, the Long sale did worse than the others. This begs the question as to what was behind its motivation and timing? Official statements say that the sale will fund new acquisitions and programming for the museum’s locations in Shanghai and Chongqing—but issues of a slowing market and Liu and Wang’s previously expansive resources still linger.
One Chinese advisor, speaking anonymously, tells The Art Newspaper that collectors were reluctant to bid, “because the Long Museum didn’t handle the [communications] so well, dodging [reasons as to] why they wanted to make the sale. So bidders didn’t really want to financially benefit them, and they just don’t want to buy from their collection”. Collectors prefer to wait to buy works without the inauspicious associations: “They think it is either no ‘face’ [a Confucian term for social status], or just bad luck.”
“Everyone is still wondering why in the world the Long Museum is selling off these works,” adds an East Asia-based dealer, speaking anonymously. “The real reason for the sale we may never, ever actually know. It might have to do with how a lot of mainland Chinese people are now looking for ways to move their assets overseas. Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei are not stupid people, they know the economy is bad, and they know that sales during a bad economy will dampen prices.”
Several Chinese contemporary artists performed at least solidly, particularly Ji Xin’s Room with Venus (2021), which attracted 31 bids and topped its $38,311 to $63,853 estimate to make $243,230. Several more works sold at, or below, their low estimates, including works by artists typically thought of as market darlings like Jia Aili, whose The Waste Land and Ding Yi’s Appearance of Crosses 2007-14, were among the unsold lots.
“We saw less bidding for Chinese artists of the 1980s and 1990s avant garde,” says Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s Asia’s chairman of Modern and contemporary art, with the exception of a Liu Ye work in another sale last week. “But we have also seen some great prices for a younger generation of Chinese contemporary artists this week.”
“A certain proportion of these works were purchased around 14 or 15 years, which belongs to the period of vigorous development of China’s capital market,” including China’s A-shares and overseas stock markets, with an expansion of the mainland upper class, says Dong. “Everyone was competing for good works, so there was a phenomenon of ‘rising tides lifting all boats’.” Now, though, “collectors with purchasing power will now be more cautious in their moves, as the future options of those who still have funds will be greater and broader”.
“At this stage, the Asian art market is definitely affected by macroeconomic factors (including interest rate hikes and inflation in Western countries), and psychological factors of wealthy people,” Dong adds. “Another aspect is that local collectors now have higher expectations and deeper participation in the work of international artists and in Western markets, which determines how they use their budgets. Like many competitions and performances, this sale is only the first round of ‘heavyweights’, so an inclination to ‘wait and see’ what happens next may be heavier.”
• This article’s author, our China correspondent Lisa Movius, appears on an episode of our podcast The Week in Art to discuss the state of Chinese museums and the art market.