Is There in the Market for Western Art in Asia?

In the wake of major auctions in Hong Kong, Natalie Hegert asks whether the West’s favorite artists can become big-hitters in Asia

Recent headline-grabbing auction results have demonstrated a clear demand for Western masterpieces among Asia’s big-spender collectors: In 2015, Modigliani’s Reclining Nude was purchased for $170 million by Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian and, more recently, Basquiat’sUntitled 1982 painting went to Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa for $110.5 million.

Until now, however, Asian collectors couldn’t expect to find these works on their home turf, but would have to bid in auctions in New York or London. This May, an experiment at Christie’s Hong Kong sought to change that: in Hong Kong, the auction house offered a selection of Western works along with the usual cadre of Asian artists in the saleContemporaries: Voices from East and West.Rebecca Wei, President of Christie’s Asia, touted the event as “a true union of Western and Asian works in one single sale.” Artists included Cecily Brown, Willem de Kooning, Adrian Ghenie, Gerhard Richter, Rudolf Stingel, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Wayne Thiebaud, Cy Twombly, featured alongside major works by Hong Kong auctions regulars — from Sanyu and Yayoi Kusama, to Zao Wou-Ki, and Shozo Shimamoto.Phillips Hong Kong also introduced more “international flavor” — as described by Jonathan Crockett, Head of 20th Century and Contemporary Art and Deputy Chairman for Phillips Asia. Its 28 May 20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Evening Sale featured artists including Sean Scully, Peter Doig, George Condo, Keith Haring, Ed Ruscha, François-XavierLalanne, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, and KAWS. The sale was preceded by a special auction of Andy Warhol photographs, taken during a trip to Hong Kong and China in 1982.

This foray into Western art at Hong Kong auction houses produced encouraging results, but few fireworks. At Christie’s, many works by Western artists sold at or below their low estimates — with a Cy Twombly failing to find a buyer. As art market commentator Enid Tsui commented in the South China Morning Post, the auction house’s sale “didn’t exactly whip the Wan Chai convention center crowd into a frenzy,” noting the tepid response to Western paintings in Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction earlier in April.

Post-sale, Christie’s appeared keen to justify the sale. For Wei, the results reinforced Hong Kong’s position as “a truly international platform for art, breaking all political boundaries,” demonstrating that the house is “on the right path to broadening the spectrum of art categories we offer in Asia.” Deputy Chairman Eric Chan added: “The success of this inaugural evening sale, epitomizes the growing trend of Asian buyers gravitating towards Western art and vice-versa.”

The Western works offered at the Phillips sale, on the other hand, produced some genuinely exciting results, with a new record set for a sculpture by the American graffiti artist anddesigner KAWS, and top prices for works by Sean Scully, Fernando Botero, and Peter Doig. Crockett described the results as “outstanding,” relating that the “electric pace was set with fierce bidding for the opening lot by Jonas Wood, selling for three times the estimate.”

The Warhol sale that preceded Phillip’s auction also achieved strong results, undoubtedly spurred by the subject’s connection to the region. As Charlotte Raybaud, Head of Sale for Warhol in China, summarized: “It was particularly meaningful to bring the works back to the Asian region, coming full circle to where they originated. The narrative as told through the lens of the master of Pop Art resonated with collectors from the region.”Both Phillips’ sales seemed to tap right into the desires of the market in Asia, with collectors participating from regions including Hong Kong, Mainland China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore. Of course, however, besides finding buyers, one of the key issues in developing a market for Western artists in Hong Kong is convincing consigners to sell beyond the major markets of New York and London.