Will Chinese demand continue to sustain the art market 2024

Will Chinese demand continue to sustain the art market 2024

A 'Chinese post-pandemic spending euphoria' helped buoy the global art market in 2023, according to the latest Art Basel and UBS Art Market report. How did this trend play out in the Hong Kong Spring auctions? At Sotheby’s, Poly Auction, and China Guardian, where auctions took place at the beginning of April, buyers continued to exercise greater caution compared with pre-COVID years, in line with the global art market. However, certain green shoots were in evidence: blue-chip works from renowned collections remain attractive, new buyers from Europe and the US were in evidence, and Sotheby’s held an inaugural ‘Now’ auction, signalling that the interest in the ‘ultra-contemporary’ market continues. Elsewhere appetite for Chinese ceramics remained buoyant, as did it for Buddhist art.

Sotheby’s Modern and contemporary evening sales took place on April 5, and for the first time in Hong Kong included a ‘Now’ auction – a sign that interest in the so-called ultra- contemporary market is not abating. Those sales raised a combined HKD 673.4 million (USD 87.5 million). The equivalent Modern and contemporary sales last year fetched considerably more, also due to the fact that there were more lots on offer: HKD 1.1 billion (USD 147.6 million) from 81 lots. Meanwhile, last autumn’s Modern and contemporary evening sales raised HKD 554.7 million (USD 70.8 million), though a cache of works from the Long Museum, offered the same evening, raised a further HKD 545.6 million. As Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s chairman of Modern and contemporary art in Hong Kong, puts it: ‘We are in a different market today.’ However, he notes that, though values are down compared with spring last year, ‘many top tier global collectors — from Europe, North America and Asia — participated in our Hong Kong sales for the first time in a long time.’

Christie’s will hold its spring auctions at the end of May ahead of its move in September to new regional headquarters in the latest Zaha Hadid addition to the Hong Kong skyline, a modular building called The Henderson. The outlook at the auction house remains optimistic. According to Francis Belin, Christie’s Asia-Pacific president, the response from collectors to Christie’s sales in Asia and internationally ‘has been robust in the first quarter [of 2024].’ He notes that the auction house’s Asian Art Week in New York totaled close to USD 52 million, with particularly strong results for South Asian Modern and contemporary art, which was 100% sold and realized 310% of the low estimate. ‘Here in Hong Kong, our online sales have achieved solid sell-through rates across both art and luxury,’ he adds. ‘What remains clear is that object quality, compelling sale curations, and realistic pricing strategies continue to attract this market, all of which will underpin our Hong Kong spring auctions in May.’

Spending from Mainland China was up in the first half of 2023, according to the latest Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report 2024, with collectors here registering the highest median expenditure in the first six months of last year, at $241,000. Demand was particularly strong for painting, up 20% from 2022, and was four times the average. But, as the report noted, China was just out of a prolonged pandemic- induced lock down, and the pent-up energy was particularly evident in sales for the first half of the year, which slowed down by the time of the autumn auctions.

This spring, Sotheby’s continued to report strong interest from buyers from the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and from North America. Some of the names that have been attracting the most attention in Hong Kong over the past few years saw the highest prices and sold most swiftly. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, a 2017 painting by Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara was the top lot in the Modern and contemporary evening auction, although it barely scraped its low pre-sale estimate of HK$80m, selling for HK$81m. Interest in Nara’s work has been consistent in recent years, and this particular piece went to an unnamed bidder from London over the phone. For the first time ever, Hong Kong is paying attention to a painter from the Chinese diaspora, Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), the Cuban modernist painter of Chinese descent, whose 1969 Les Fruits tropicaux was sold for HK$11.3m (US$1.4m), a record for the newly appreciated artist.

Gimmicks aside, the spring auctions confirmed what the latest Art Basel and UBS Art Market Report 2024 already suspected, that collectors, buyers and investors in the region are not feeling the same kind of giddy desire to spend and bring home extravagant treasures that characterised the pre-Covid years. In part this is a sign that over-investment in real estate, and the sluggish internal consumption in the Chinese market, are having real time effects on the larger luxury and art trades. But, as other global markets have shown, demand remains strong for tried and tested names—whether Modernists such as Qi Baishi and Zhang Daqian or more contemporary names including Yayoi Kusama and Yoshitomo Nara. Exceptional and rare antique lots will find eager buyers, too.

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