“Unbelievable”, “amazing”, “crazy”. Dealers exiting the postwar and contemporary sales in New York this week couldn’t find enough words in the thesaurus to describe the astonishing results achieved over the three main evening sessions. With more sales to come after we went to press, already more than $1.3bn had been racked up in a series of sales that saw prices soar for the biggest blue-chip names in the contemporary art world, driven by extraordinarily strong bidding from Asia.
Things started with a bang on Monday night when Christie’s fielded a 35-work auction touted as “experimental” – although with works by established artists such as Peter Doig, Martin Kippenberger and Andy Warhol, it was difficult to see what was particularly groundbreaking about it, even if it was promoted with a video of a skateboarder. But it made $134.6m with fees, above the high estimate of $124m (which doesn’t include fees). Asian bidders were highly active, snapping up four works including Doig’s “Road House” (1991), at a record for the artist of $11.9m, and the top lot, Kippenberger’s “Untitled” (1988), for $18.6m.
On Tuesday night a gruelling but rip-roaring evening at Christie’s pulverised records again, reaching $744.9m – the highest total ever for a single art market auction, and a good step up from the previous record of $691m, established by Christie’s New York in November last year. Sixty-eight lots were sold, with Asians certainly accounting for five of the top 10, since they fell to Xin Li from the firm’s Asian office who was bidding on the telephone. Top lot was Barnett Newman’s “Black Fire I” (1961), which made $84.1m. Warhol’s “White Marilyn” (1962) left its $12m-$18m estimate in the dust when it sold for $41m, and a bidder fielded by Xin Li paid almost $26m for Alexander Calder’s “Poisson Volant (Flying Fish)” (1958), which flew well over its $9m-$12m target. Helping the sparkling results were the guarantees of various sorts on 40 of the 72 lots offered.
Sotheby’s sale on Wednesday evening was calmer but made $364m, nevertheless, with another Warhol as top seller at $30m and Steve Wynn acquiring Jeff Koons’ garish stainless-steel Popeye for $28.2m, above its $25m presale estimate. Just the job for the Wynn casino in Las Vegas, where it will be displayed.
How much further can this frenzied market go? “No one can predict what will happen in the future,” says New York dealer Christophe Van De Weghe. “A lot of new buyers are coming into the market from different parts of the world, and sometimes they overpay.”
“Money creates Taste” proclaimed the motto carved in Chinese characters on a Jenny Holzer bench at the Art Basel Hong Kong fair, which opened to VIPs on Wednesday and ends on Sunday. Behind it, six colourful Holzer neons were scrolling away, all in Chinese: one, “Pearl’s Truisms & Survival” (2013), sold immediately at the opening for $180,000. “Chinese people believe that having money confers taste,” said gallerist Pearl Lam. “And buying the most expensive things shows that they have the money.” Indeed, on the Krinzinger stand nearby, a 2013 piece by upcoming Chinese artist Zhang Ding was inscribed “Gold can Move the God” in English on one side, and in Chinese on the other.
With its growing population of billionaires, all with new money, mainland China is a magnet for art dealers. The 245 galleries from 39 countries exhibiting at the Hong Kong event are there to develop sales in China and, indeed, the whole region. Many are still testing the waters, and brought a mix of western and Asian artists – Lin Tianmiao and Jaume Plensa at Lelong, or Callum Innes and Mariko Mori at Sean Kelly. Like the Holzer, many works on offer, even by western artists, had an Asian slant. Dominating Continua’s stand, for example, was Michelangelo Pistoletto’s 2010 work “Rem(a)inders”, with a metal Buddha perched atop a pile of used clothes. Even so, Chinese taste is unpredictable – Perrotin, for instance, sold “Fanny” (2013) by Daniel Firman, a sculpture showing a woman leaning against a wall, her head hidden with a blue sweater. It went for €26,000 to a mainland Chinese collector starting a private museum in Guangzhou.
The fair is now in its second edition under the Basel banner and the Swiss organisers have certainly transformed both the fair and the week it is held in, which now offers more than 100 cultural events. Perhaps the sharpest change is the level of presentation, with the Asian galleries having quickly adopted the slick, elegant look of the smartest western galleries. They have lost the quirky, sometimes rather chaotic, staging of the fair at its inception in 2008. But this homogenisation is not to the taste of everyone. Walking around the fair at the opening was Swiss collector Uli Sigg, one of the earliest westerners to buy Chinese art. He lamented what he called “trending to the mainstream” among Chinese artists. “The problem is that young artists the world over are seeing the same things, because of globalisation and the internet – so there is less originality in their creations,” he says. However, he doesn’t despair. “Asian artists are catching up and maybe in the future they will go on to explore new horizons.”
In an effort to address cross-cultural differences, Art Basel printed out a “New to Buying Art” cheat sheet, which was handed out to visitors to the Hong Kong fair and featured “helpful tips to get you started”. The sheet advised: “Do be respectful in your negotiations”; “You should not expect a substantial markdown” and, “Don’t be deterred by a ‘red dot’ ”. “The Chinese buyer is very different,” explains New York dealer Christophe Van De Weghe. “The aesthetics are different, the way of doing business is different, it’s a big learning curve.” And while many Asian buyers are knowledgeable about western artists and their prices, some are at an early learning stage. One gallerist recounts that a few years ago he sealed a deal on a Lucio Fontana with an Asian client at “450” and only discovered as cash started being handed over that the buyer had not realised that the “thousand” was missing …
Still in Hong Kong, Bonhams has unveiled a new purpose-built saleroom and holds its first sale there on Saturday, with a 74-lot catalogue of modern and contemporary Asian art. The saleroom, on the 20th floor of the same building as Sotheby’s Hong Kong, will be used for previews and auctions of everything from watches, jewellery, Chinese ceramics and art to wine and cognac.
Coming under the hammer on Saturday is a mixed group of Chinese and southeast Asian works, from modestly priced multiples such as a porcelain camel/woman by Zhou Teihai (est $1,900-$2,600) to a triptych by Liu Ye showing his characteristic stumpy children with Mondrian-like paintings (est $640,000-$770,000).
The whole sale is estimated at up to $2.5m, and the firm promises to hold smaller sales throughout the year, and not just during the traditional auction months of May and November.
Georgina Adam is art market editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper
Letter in response to this article: