‘The Last Supper’ (2011) by Zeng Fanzhi
‘The Last Supper’ (2011) by Zeng Fanzhi, which sold for $23.1m at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale
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Sotheby’s ended its five-day auction marathon in Hong Kong, marking its 40 years of presence in Asia, on a massive high this week. The 16 sessions, from wine and jewellery to ceramics and contemporary art, fetched a rip-roaring total of $538m, neatly doubling the amount the group made just a year ago for the same series. It was the highest total ever made by an international auction house in Asia for such a session, although the Beijing-based Poly Auctions claimed a higher result in 2011.

A new auction record was set for a living Asian artist, with Zeng Fanzhi’s “The Last Supper” (2011), a reworking of Leonardo’s masterpiece in which the diners wear communist Young Pioneer uniforms with mask faces, sold for $23.1m. That was double the estimate and toppled the previous record set by Zheng Xiaogang, whose “Forever Lasting Love” (1988) sold for $10.2m in 2011. Unconfirmed rumours say both have gone to Qatar.

Zao Wou-ki, the Paris-based painter who died in April, also did well, with one of his abstract works selling for an on-estimate $11m in the keynote evening sale, which raised $145m for 55 lots. Ceramics, fine Chinese painting, ink painting: all did well.

Sotheby’s also announced that it would be holding a series of sales and events in Beijing between November 28 and December 1. The headline auction will be of modern and contemporary Chinese art, led by a Zao Wou-ki consigned by the Art Institute of Chicago and estimated at up to $7.3m. The museum is selling the work to benefit its acquisitions fund, it said.

The excellent results will come as some solace to Sotheby’s, which is fighting off an attack from the activist investor Daniel Loeb, whose excoriating letter to the auction house accused it among other failings of “falling behind” in Asia.

For further description of the furore in the local market, see Susan Moore’s article.

What is happening at the Art Loss Register, the for-profit firm run by Julian Radcliffe that hunts for stolen and looted art, as well as maintaining the world’s biggest private database of such works? Insurance companies and auction houses are among its shareholders, but in recent months it has seen a number of significant employee departures, coupled with an unflattering article in The New York Times detailing the company’s sometimes unconventional methods for recovering works.

Now ALR’s former legal counsel Christopher Marinello has also left to set up a competing firm, Art Recovery International. He is working on creating his own database, which will include “stolen and looted artwork, title disputes, fakes and forgeries, and works that may be subject to financial security interest” and which he hopes to have up and running in January 2014.

I asked Marinello – who makes no secret of his disenchantment with ALR – why it took him seven years to leave. “I was hoping to change the organisation from within,” he said. “Seeing that true transparency could not exist under current management, I felt the need to create a new organisation. The marketplace needs a central database of stolen, looted and claimed works of art …one that is run ethically [and] responsibly.” To which Julian Radcliffe says: “It is true we give money to pay informers and to the police, they even ask for it sometimes. The important thing is to recover the art. And what the art trade wants is a single database, it doesn’t want to go to a number of different places.” Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams are minority shareholders in ALR; none wanted to comment on this matter.

Another “stolen” art saga comes from Manhattan, where a collector, Francesco Pellizzi, has just filed a complaint in a New York court. Pellizzi says a drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat was stolen from him years ago, but he didn’t realise until it appeared in a Christie’s auction in May.

His mother had paid $8,800 for the untitled oilstick on paper of a squiggly stick figure in 1988, says Pellizzi, but at some point before 2000 it was stolen from the file drawer where it was kept.

In Christie’s catalogue, the work’s provenance was listed as coming from the Annina Nosei Gallery, New York (Nosei was one of the artist’s first dealers), and then two French and one Swiss owners before being acquired by the vendor, identified in court papers as the New York-based lawyer David Ruttenberg, who had bought it with the dealer and former Christie’s specialist Jennifer Vorbach. It was put into Christie’s sale as “Property from a Distinguished Midwestern Collection” in May this year.

By now Pellizzi had identified the work and agreed with Vorbach and Ruttenberg that the work would be sold, and the sale total would be kept by Christie’s while the ownership dispute was resolved. The work sold for $627,750 but now Pellizzi is asking for $520,000 – the sale price minus fees – saying the work was his. “We rightfully acquired the drawing long after it was on the public market,” Vorbach told the Financial Times. “And I expect that Mr Pellizzi’s claim will be dismissed when the drawing’s full provenance is shared with the court.”

Leonardo’s portrait of Italian noblewoman Isabella d’Este
Leonardo’s portrait of Italian noblewoman Isabella d’Este, found in a Swiss bank vault

Yet another “rediscovered” Leonardo has surfaced, this time a portrait of Italian noblewoman Isabella d’Este, in a collection of 400 works held by an unidentified Italian family in a Swiss bank vault. This is the fifth work newly attributed to Leonardo to pop up in the past couple of years. They vary from the solidly accepted, if not masterly (“Salvator Mundi”, seen at the National Gallery’s Leonardo show in 2011) to the frankly risible (“Madonna and Child”, found in a Perthshire doctor’s home last year). And with each rediscovery, most press reports have managed to crowbar in some reference to Dan Brown’s bestseller, The Da Vinci Code.

The rewards for finding a genuine Leonardo are obvious. “Salvator Mundi”, which belongs to a group of art dealers, was looking for $200m; the charming “La Bella Principessa”, a vellum portrait of Bianca, the Duke of Milan’s illegitimate daughter, could be worth $150m plus. The “Isleworth Mona Lisa”, supposedly an earlier version of the famed portrait, now belongs to an “international consortium” and is being promoted by a non-profit Swiss foundation. So far, only the first of these works has found scholarly agreement, and there are rumours that it has finally found a buyer, or at least is “off the market”.

As for the latest “rediscovery”, the former Italian culture minister Vittorio Sgarbi was scathing in a comment piece in the Italian newspaper Il Giornale, titled “È un’autentica crosta!” (A real daub!), while art historian Tomaso Montarini in Il Fatto Quotidiano blasted it as another imposition “on the memory of the poor Leonardo da Vinci, an artist so mistreated that if there was a helpline for great masters he should have the number on speed dial”.

This week sees the unveiling of the biggest ever Damien Hirst show to be held in Qatar – and just in time, along comes an ArtTactic report on the market for his work, claiming that it is healthier than you might think. Don’t just look at the auction market, says the report, the artist’s White Cube gallery sold more than $110m worth of spots, spins and so on in 2012. “Now is the time to have a second look at the Damien Hirst market,” says ArtTactic, noting that Hirst “will be judged on his overall contribution to contemporary art history rather than what the market has seen in the last 10 years”.

Collector Charles Saatchi is linking up with the London-based Tsukanov foundation to bring art from the former Soviet Union and CIS countries to the UK. Collector and financier Igor Tsukanov, whose Kensington home features fine holdings of Russian postwar art, initially showed part of his collection with the Saatchi gallery in Breaking The Ice: Moscow Art 1960-80s (held between November 2012 and March this year). As a result of the new deal, the gallery will be holding a series of “curated shows from the post-Soviet states” over the next five years.

As for Tsukanov’s collection, it has increased significantly since 2005, and he complains on his website: “One obvious counter-effect of pursuing a strategy of rapid growth under conditions of intensifying competition for assets, when applied both in business and in the art market, is that it can become ever more costly.” And presumably giving greater exposure to Russian works should make them even more costly.

Georgina Adam is art market editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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