Luxury Outlook 2023
An ambitious exploration into high-end residential markets across the globe.
Each time auctioneer Ian McGinley thought he had the final bid for an untitled 1947 painting by Joan Miró at Sotheby’s 50th Anniversary Modern Evening Auction in Hong Kong in April this year, he was mistaken. A tense silence filled the room as a 20-minute contest developed. Sotheby’s experts, including Alex Branczik, chairman of modern & contemporary art, Asia, and Jen Hua, deputy chairman, Asia, were taking bids by phone. Finally the bidding reached HK$41.5 million (HK$50.6 million/ $5.3 million with fees) against an HK$32 million low estimate. This was a new record for Miró in the region; when the hammer came down, the room broke out in applause.
Asian collectors are becoming more prominent on the global art scene than ever before. Branczik says that Sotheby’s client base is rapidly expanding in the region, with record numbers of bidders and three times more collectors aged under 40 bidding in 2022 than in 2021. He also says that buyers from Asia spent on average 20% more than buyers from other regions and bid 40% higher.
They have also broadened in their interests from focusing principally on the art and antiquities of their own regions to pursuing masterworks by western artists such as Pablo Picasso, Gerhard Richter and Louise Bourgeois. As referenced in Sotheby’s Insight Report The Art Market Beyond $1 Million, 2018–2022, Asian collectors now account for almost 20% of all bidders for modern and contemporary art with estimates over $1 million.
There have, of course, always been Asian collectors buying at the highest level. In the late 1980s, Japanese buyers famously acquired several major works by Monet and Van Gogh, including paying a then-record-breaking $82.5 million for Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet, 1890, during a stock market boom. But the extent of the change has been recent, rapid and dramatic, says Branczik, who transferred to Hong Kong from London in 2021.
Collectors used to be few and far between. “When I started at Sotheby’s back in 2004, the entirety of our business there basically funneled through one person, our then-chairman of Sotheby’s Asia [who was based in London],” says Branczik. “All of our Asia offices had this one London phone number. Today, Sotheby’s presence constitutes a huge matrix of connections and networks of specialists. It is a completely different picture.”
Asian collectors come from many countries, including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Indonesia. But the region’s recent ascent is undoubtedly connected to the development of Mainland China and Hong Kong as leading art market centers, driven by their fast-growing numbers of billionaires and millionaires.
Initially it was Chinese contemporary artists who benefited from the economic and cultural rise of Mainland China. In the early 2000s, western collectors went wild for work by artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Liu Ye. Branczik was the first to bring Chinese contemporary art to a major Sotheby’s contemporary art sale in London in 2006. “The vision was to sell Chinese art to westerners but also, by including these artists in London auctions, to attract Chinese collectors to western artists,” he says.
That vision has paid off, as leading auction houses, art fairs and galleries report many deep-pocketed collectors joining their European and American counterparts in their passion for western modern and contemporary art. In April 2022, a Picasso portrait of Dora Maar, 1939, sold to a Japanese collector for HK$169.4 million ($21.6 million) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. In the same sale, Louise Bourgeois’ Spider IV (conceived in 1996, cast in 1997) fetched HK$129.2 million ($16.5 million), becoming the most expensive sculpture ever sold in Asia.
In October last year, contemporary artists also did well, driven by millennial bidders. Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild, 1990, sold for just over HK$200.4 million ($25.5 million) the second-highest price for the artist at auction in Asia. Younger artists such as Cecily Brown, Louise Bonnet, Loie Hollowell and Anna Weyant have also sold exceptionally well in Hong Kong.
This year, as Sotheby’s celebrates the 50th anniversary of its first auction in Hong Kong, it announced plans for new spaces in the city, Seoul and Shanghai, and an enhanced calendar of special auctions. When it commemorated its 40th anniversary a decade ago, no western artists appeared in the corresponding sales. This time, several works by modern western artists featured, including paintings by Picasso, Miró and Marc Chagall. Picasso’s Femme dans un fauteuil, 1948, sold for HK$93.1 million ($11.9 million), while Chagall’s Fiancée avec bouquet, 1977, made HK$27.1 million ($3.5 million). In the contemporary sale, Loie Hollowell’s Standing in Red, 2019, sold for HK$17.9 million ($2.3 million), more than three times its low estimate.