Bringing down the gavel
Last week kicked off Hong Kong’s spring auction season amid strong standouts and the occasional lacklustre bidding. Sotheby’s April sales are usually a barometer for the emerging market demand across the Asia region, extending from South Korea, China and down across Southeast Asia. Yet despite the importance of some works on offer, bidding remained surprisingly tepid in the salesrooms, with a considerable portion of bids going towards successful buyers over the phone. Still, the art market seems to be ticking along at a steady pace, as evidenced by a truly whopping US$26.7 million sold for a 900-year-old Song Dynasty porcelain brush washer. Who saw that coming?
Many Time Out readers will recognise the smiling faces and sky blue hues of the contemporary Chinese pieces snapped up by an Indonesian tycoon, Budi Tek, whose presence at the sales elicited an electric bidding frenzy on several pieces across the Asian Contemporary Art Sales. Tek, who is obviously on a shopping spree to fulfill his latest dream project – a contemporary art museum in Shanghai – stole the limelight with the purchase of Bloodline – Big Family No. 2 (1993) by the Chinese contemporary artist Zhang Xiaogang for a jaw-dropping US$6.69 million.
While big ticket items such as Bloodline sold extremely well, I felt that buyers were being more selective than in past seasons. Is this an indication of things to come? The most delightful sale of the week was certainly Sotheby’s South East Asian department, whose artists have proved that bigger is not always better, and that the art of a fine painting goes a long way (as many young Filipino and Indonesian stalwarts saw last week). For most Hongkongers, South East Asia is the land of sand, sun and late night shenanigans. For me, it’s the land of fantastically promising artists whose art I may actually be able to own!
Sotheby’s specialist, Jasmine Prasetio, sums up the ground-swell: “The increasing demand for and attention on Southeast Asian art, both modern and contemporary, is not an overnight phenomenon, but something that has been steadily growing since late 2007. With Southeast Asia being a popular destination among the business community, and Indonesian artists participating in international exhibitions, art fairs and biennials, it seems natural that Southeast Asian art has become more present in people’s consciousness.”
Many auction houses now wait with baited breath to see which collectors will fly into town for the sales, as prominent Filipino collector Marcel Crespo points out to me: “With major international art players moving to Hong Kong, the fifth installment of Art HK and continued strength of the auction market, I can only imagine how exciting the next five years will be for the city.”
But It would be remiss of me not to mention quirky Seoul Auction House – whose somewhat melancholy inclusion of art (seized from South Korean banks which collapsed last year) offered buyers some serious bargains by major Western artists, from Andy Warhol to fluxist impresario Dan Flavin. Alongside Korean 20th century works by Kim Whanki was an absolute corker by contemporary American artist Julian Schnabel, whose painting doubled its pre-sale estimate, proving that spring is still blossoming – but perhaps we need to manage our great expectations.