The premium lots were sold and artist records were set, Phillips inaugurated its glossy new Asia headquarters in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District with a safe 20th-century and contemporary art spring evening sale that achieved a total above the lower end of the presale expectation. Though the result may not appear as spectacular as the premise’s grand opening party last week, it indicated an upward trend that could be a confidence booster for the region’s market.
As the first major auction staged this year and after the vibrant Hong Kong Art Week, which successfully lured a sizable international art crowd back to the city and sold many works priced in the mid-range, the Phillips auction on Thursday evening will further define the market’s tone. Led by Yoshitomo Nara’s 1995 painting , the sale achieved a hammer total of HK$285 million ($36.3 million), above the lower end of the premium-free presale estimate at HK$273.5 million ($34.8 million, excluding the withdrawn lots). Inflated by fees, the sale total reached HK$351 million ($45 million), a figure that Jonathan Crockett, Asia chairman of Phillips, also the sale’s auctioneer, said the house was “thrilled” with.
“We are thrilled with tonight’s result,” Crockett said in a statement after the sale, adding that the result of the very well-attended auction at the brand new sale room has exceeded last year’s evening sale total by 65 percent. More auctions are expected to be staged here throughout the year. “The positive energy and enthusiasm we have seen in Hong Kong during art week is testament to the strength of the art market here.”
Indeed, last spring’s evening sale totaled HK$214 million ($27 million; sale prices include fees, presale estimates do not, unless otherwise stated), and it has been on an upward trend since then as last autumn’s evening sale achieved HK$262 million ($33.6 million). But it’s still a gap from the 2021 spring’s peak at HK$491 million ($63 million).
The sale initially offered 42 lots, more than last autumn’s figure and in-line with last spring’s scale. But two lots were withdrawn before the sale kicked off—a painting by Wu Guanzhong, one of the masters from the 20th century, a category that has not been performing as well as it had in recent years, and a work by Trey Abdella.
Four lots, including two Andy Warhols, a canvas work by Chinese artist Liu Wei, and a 2007 large-scale finger painting by recent art-market darling, Ayako Rokkaku, could not find buyers. In the end, 90 percent out of the 40 lots on the offer were sold, many at hammer prices not far above the lower end of the presale expectation. The percentage of lots sold is the lowest compared to the past four sales; spring 2021 saw a 100 percent sell-through rate. A quarter of the lots on offer at Thursday’s sale, or 10, were on third-party guarantees.
Key lots were sold, nevertheless. Crockett turned up on the new stage set against a slick digital backdrop in good spirits, hosting the sale by switching between English and Mandarin while jamming Japanese and French phrases in between to greet online bidders from different parts of the world (the house received bids from 34 countries). The pace of the bidding process, however, was slow overall, compared to sales in London, as if the phone bidders had a hard time deciding whether they wanted to commit to a bid. At times, the phone bidders asked for just a small increment in their bids.
The 40-lot sale took more than two hours to wrap up, despite Crockett hurrying his colleagues along. The sale was again held in collaboration with Chinese auction house Yongle, but bidding from the Beijing house was scarce.
Leading the sale was Nara’s painting, which sold for nearly HK$83.9 million ($10.7 million). The work went under the hammer at HK$70 million ($8.9 million), in line with the presale expectation, and sold to an in-room bidder without much competition. The work is said to be one of the four paintings that the Japanese art star completed in 1995 while he was in Cologne, and was one of the guaranteed works.
This was followed by Yayoi Kusama’s , also from 1995. It sold for HK$56 million ($7 million), the second priciest painting sold at auction, according to Artnet Price Database. It went under hammer at a price within expectations to a phone bidder bidding with Isaure de Viel Castel, head of the 20th-century and contemporary art department in Hong Kong. Fresh to the market, the work came from the collection of the Clarinda Carnegie Art Museum in Iowa in the U.S., and the sale proceeds will go to the museum’s global arts promotion initiatives and local arts and youth programs.
Another Kusama work that made it to the top 10 was the 2001 sculpture , another guaranteed lot which sold for HK$27.7 million ($3.5 million) to a phone bidder bidding with the house’s Hong Kong-based international specialist Sandy Ma. The work, the fourth of the top 10, had a hammer price within expectations. A Kusama retrospective is still on view at M+, just next to the Phillips’s new premise, through May 14, and will tour Guggenheim Museum Bilbao from June onwards.
The colorful moody landscape painting (2018) by the late Canadian artist Matthew Wong, was the third priciest work sold this evening, achieving HK$36 million ($4.6 million), also with a hammer price within expectations. Roy Lichtenstein’s 1990 work sold for HK$19.8 million ($2.5 million), with a hammer price within expectations.
Other guaranteed works, such as (2017) by Rashid Johnson, who was in Hong Kong to open his first Asia solo show at Hauser & Wirth, sold for HK$6.4 million ($808,931) to a phone bidder bidding with the Hong Kong team. Kaws’s diptych canvas work (2010), a guaranteed work, sold for HK$6 million ($776,576), though with a hammer price below the lower end of the presale estimate.
The sale set two artist records. Chinese artist Chen Ke’s enigmatic painting (2020) achieved HK$5 million ($647,192), a significant jump from her last record of HK$3.6 million ($458,598) set in July 2020. Southern California-based Brett Crawford’s , freshly completed just this year, sold for HK$2.2 million ($275,057), beating a record set in December.
Some younger Western names continued to perform. Lauren Quin’s (2021–22) sold for HK$1.9 million ($242,037), with a hammer price nearly double the higher end of the presale expectation, to an online bidder from Japan.
Lucy Bull’s (2020), Loie Hollowell’s (2018), and George Rouy’s (2018) sold to phone bidders represented by Phillips’s Shanghai office. Bull’s work sold for HK$4.8 million ($614,780), with a hammer price almost double the higher end of the presale estimate, while Hollowell’s piece sold for HK$6.6 million ($841,278), within estimates. Rouy’s painting sold for HK$889,000 ($113,250).