“Modest by international standards”: Sotheby’s inaugural China mainland sale receives measured reactions

With international auction houses now competing on Chinese soil, did the Sotheby’s latest Modern and Contemporary Art Sale in Beijing meet expectations?

Taking place on 1 December 2013 in Beijing, Sotheby’s held its first commercial auction in mainland China. The Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art sale saw healthy overall bidding and a new record for Chinese grandmaster Zao Wou-ki. But with attention focused on the increasing competition between Sotheby’s and long-time rival Christie’s, were the results strong enough to dismiss speculation that Sotheby’s is losing ground to its competitor?

Zao Wu-ki (1920-2013), 'Abstraction', 1958, oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Zao Wou-ki (1920-2013), ‘Abstraction’, 1958, oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

In September 2012, Sotheby’s became the first international auction house licensed to conduct business in mainland China, in a joint venture with Beijing Gehua Cultural Development Group. Just over twelve months later, Christie’s held its first mainland sale in Shanghai, marking a ramping up of competition between the houses in the Asian art market. 

In addition to the increased competition on Chinese soil, Sotheby’s has recently been dogged by rumours of internal wrangling between activist shareholder Dan Loeb and CEO Bill Ruprecht. Media commentators such as The New York Times‘s Carol Vogel pointed out that in its New York Autumn 2013 sales, Sotheby’s finished second to Christie’s despite recording its highest ever sales on 14 November. The subsequent resignation of veteran auctioneer Tobias Meyer, ostensibly by mutual agreement, also gave rise to rumours of trouble at Sotheby’s.

However, the Beijing sale of Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art on 1 December, Sotheby’s first in China, appeared largely undeterred by the auction house’s recent problems. The sale crowd was substantial: more and more chairs had to be brought in until the room at China World Summit Wing was filled to capacity with hundreds of spectators and bidders. The sale fetched a total of USD37 million all told, exceeding Sotheby’s pre-sale estimate of USD20.2 million (estimates do not include buyer’s premium, which Sotheby’s sets at 18%, whereas final prices do).

Chen Fei (b. 1983), 'Ambition', 2009, acrylic on canvas, 240 x 190 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Chen Fei (b. 1983), ‘Ambition’, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 240 x 190 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Premium lots, solid provenance

A new auction record was set for Chinese modern master Zao Wou-ki (1920-2013) when his Abstraction (1958), from the “Oracle Bone” series, reached a hammer price of USD76 million (RMB89,680,000) including buyer’s premium, doubling pre-sale estimates of RMB35-45 million (final price includes buyer’s premium whereas estimates do not).

Promoted heavily by the auction house as a premium lot, Abstraction has a solid provenance and since 1961 has been in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, the work’s consignee. Red and black, colours considered auspicious in traditional Chinese culture, dominate this abstract oil on canvas painting and proved popular with bidders. Eight bidders – five on phones and three in the room – competed in an intense battle for nearly five minutes before a bidder in the room, Zhang Xiaojun, a collector from Shanxi province, prevailed.

The price eclipsed the previous auction record of Zao Wou-ki, USD10,928,205 (HKD 85,240,000) set by Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 5 October 2013 for his 15.01.82. According to Sotheby’s, the house currently holds the top six auction prices for the artist.

Wang Xingwei (b. 1969), 'Golfer and Watermelons No. 1', 2005, oil on canvas, 137 x 210 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Wang Xingwei (b. 1969), ‘Golfer and Watermelons No. 1′, 2005, oil on canvas, 137 x 210 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Sale surprises

Among lots that sold considerably higher than the estimate was a large acrylic on canvas painting titled Ambition (2009) by next generation artist Chen Fei (b. 1983). The auction house had put the estimate at RMB250,000-350,000 yet the work outdid expectations. After much lively bidding, the work quickly reached a hammer price of RMB5,428,000 (USD891,278), thereby setting a new auction record for the artist.

Wang Xingwei’s (b. 1969) large oil on canvas Golfer and Watermelons No.1 (2005) provoked a lively bidding session, particularly from phone buyers, and reached a hammer price of RMB3,100,000  (USD600,644) where the estimate had been set between RMB800,000-1,200,000.

Li Shuang (b. 1957), 'Red and Black', 1979, oil on canvas, 63 x 50 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Li Shuang (b. 1957), ‘Red and Black’, 1979, oil on canvas, 63 x 50 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Estimated by Sotheby’s to fetch between RMB400,000-600,000, Li Shuang’s (b. 1957) abstract oil on canvas Red and Black (1979) mainly driven by two bidders on the phone, brought a surprisingly high hammer price of RMB1,600,000 (USD310,010).

Su Xinping’s (b. 1960) Sea of Desire No. 2 (1995) was another lot that sold far above expectations. The estimate had been set between RMB150,000-200,000. However, after two bidders fought it out, the hammer price was RMB1,534,000 (USD251,883).

Another lot that far outdid estimates was Wang Yin’s (b. 1964) oil on canvas painting On the Train (2008), which reached RMB1,239,000 hammer price (USD203,444), where the estimate had been set at RMB500,000-700,000.

Ai Xuan (b. 1947), 'Tibetan Girl', 1992, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 92 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Ai Xuan (b. 1947), ‘Tibetan Girl’, 1992, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 92 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Two lots that led to lively interest were Ai Xuan’s (b. 1947) Tibetan Girl (1992), which reached a hammer price of RMB3,304,000 (USD542,517) and his Song from Afar (2013), a colour and ink painting, which went to the hammer at RMB885,000 (USD145,317). The latter had an estimate of RMB250,000-300,000, whereas the former had an estimate between RMB800,000-1,200,000. Ai’s third piece in the auction, a pencil on paper Xiao Yingzi (1996), was sold within the range of the estimate at RMB90,000.

Many bidders also demonstrated interest in Sheng Meibing’s (b. 1957) oil on canvas Mood and the hammer price tripled the lowest estimate, climbing to a hammer price of RMB 496,000 (estimate was RMB150-180,000).

Yang Feiyun (b. 1954), 'Little Actress', 1985, oil on canvas, 116 x 95.5 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Yang Feiyun (b. 1954), ‘Little Actress’, 1985, oil on canvas, 116 x 95.5 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Average sales for the New Wave

Lots highlighted by Sotheby’s included two pieces from the New Wave 1980s-1990s era, including Li Guijun’s (b. 1964) oil painting 140 Art Studio (1985) ,with an estimate set at RMB6-10 million, as well as Yang Feiyun’s (b. 1954) oil on canvas portrait Little Actress (1985) with an estimate between RMB8-12 million. Both lots sold within the estimated range. Li Guijun, although only reaching the minimum price, nevertheless set a new auction record, and Yang Feiyun just exceeded the top end of its estimate at a hammer price of RMB14,750,000 (USD2,421,950).

Contemporary ink leaders

The contemporary Chinese ink section was led by a work by Xu Lei (b. 1963), The Peony Pavilion (2006), inspired by Tang Xianzu’s play of the same name. Estimated to sell for between RMB1-1.5 million, the work eventually went at RMB1.5 million (USD251,883) and therefore reached its target.

Xu Lei (b. 1963), 'Peony Pavilion', 2006, colour and ink on paper, 86.5 x 64.5 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Xu Lei (b. 1963), ‘Peony Pavilion’, 2006, colour and ink on paper, 86.5 x 64.5 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

From the Contemporary Chinese Art Section, among the lots highlighted by Sotheby’s was Zeng Fanzhi’s (b. 1964) oil on canvas portrait Untitled No. 8 (2001), estimated between RMB5-7 million. After lively interest by bidders, the painting was sold for the RMB5.9 million (USD968,781) hammer price.


Out of the 140 lots that were on offer, two were removed and 25 lots did not meet the minimum bid and remained unsold. That translates to a sale rate of 82% of lots, many of which sold for high above expectations.

One notable example of a lot that failed to sell was Zhang Enli’s (b. 1965) oil on canvas Smoker (1997), a classic piece from Zhang’s early period during which he depicted real people and objects against gloomy backgrounds. Sotheby’s had put an estimate for this oil on canvas for between RMB2.5-2.8 million, yet bids did not go beyond RMB2.4 million.

Another higher priced lot that failed to meet the minimum bid was Zhou Chunya’s (b. 1955) Under the Loquat Tree (2008). A bid of RMB2.2 million was not enough for this large oil on canvas that had been priced to fetch between RMB2.8-3.8 million.

Three lots by Yan Pei-Ming (b. 1960) all failed to sell. The most expensive piece, an oil on canvas portrait titled Farmer, had been estimated to fetch between RMB2-2.5 million. Two lots of oil landscape paintings by Su Tianci (1922-2006) also failed to meet the minimum bid and were not sold.

Zhang Enli (b. 1965), 'Smoker', 1997, oil on canvas, 170 x 150 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Zhang Enli (b. 1965), ‘Smoker’, 1997, oil on canvas, 170 x 150 cm. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

What the papers said

Reactions to the sale were measured. Hong Kong-based dealer Pascal de Sarthe told Bloomberg that results proved the existence of “strong buyers” on the mainland. Bloomberg described the auction as “modest by international standards”, although Kevin Ching, Chief Executive Officer of Sotheby’s Asia, countered that the event was as much about marketing and gaining access to the growing ranks of wealthy Chinese as immediate profit.

The Wall Street Journal pointed out that, although in direct competition, Sotheby’s and Christie’s are adopting different strategies in China. In Shanghai, Christie’s held a varied sale, ranging from Picasso to Southeast Asian art. Sotheby’s, on the other hand, focused on Chinese art. Which strategy will prove more successful remains unknown.

Nooshfar Afnan


Editor’s note: Final figures include fees but estimates do not

Related Topics: art auctions, Chinese artists, business of art, events in Beijing

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