Zhang’s $6.7 Million Baby Boosts Sotheby’s Mixed Hong Kong Sale

Zhang Xiaogang Work
Zhang Xiaogang's 1992 work, "Chapter of a New Century - Birth of the People's Republic of China II,'' set an artist record of HK$52.18 million ($6.73 million) at Sotheby's autumn sale in Hong Kong. The work had been estimated to fetch up to HK$23 million. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

Waving paddle 3008, a woman in a black dress at the center of Sotheby’s Hong Kong saleroom saw off all comers to win a 1992 Zhang Xiaogang painting that set an artist record of HK$52.18 million ($6.7 million), as Chinese buyers competed for works by established artists.

The Zhang painting of a baby, “Chapter of a New Century -- Birth of the People’s Republic of China II,” was the most expensive lot in yesterday’s auctions of modern and contemporary Asian art that tallied HK$471 million. Works by artists such as Zhang, “Mask Series” painter Zeng Fanzhi and gunpowder-on-paper specialist Cai Guo-Qiang drew strong bidding, more than compensating for patchy interest in lesser-known names.

“The market is getting more mature,” Evelyn Lin, Sotheby’s head of contemporary Asian art, said in an interview. “Very established quality works will fetch a big price.”

Asian buyers dominated, as the focus switched back to art from the past two decades that led a run-up in prices before the recession, over earlier works from the 20th century.

The crimson painting “18-10-60” from 1960 by Zao Wou-ki, who headlined Christie’s International’s Hong Kong sale in May amid frenzied bidding, sold for HK$14.1 million, below the HK$18 million top estimate. Zhang’s picture, by contrast, fetched almost double its HK$23 million high estimate. (Estimates don’t include buyer’s premiums.)

White Gloves

Zhang’s piece went up for sale near the end of the evening session, generating a wave of excitement in a three-quarters-full saleroom. The picture, the only one brought into the room and held by two white-gloved Sotheby’s staff, shows a yellow baby resting on white sheets against a backdrop of historical photos from 20th-century China.

“It is the first time I’ve used old photos in my work,” said Zhang in a 2001 interview, according to Sotheby’s catalog. “That was the beginning of what I’ve become today.”

The buyer, who purchased the painting for a Shanghai museum, according to the auction house, became more hesitant as bidding rose from HK$13 million toward HK$40 million, seeing off two telephone bidders and two rivals in the room. Finally, as she hesitated, her partner lifted the paddle for her.

Asked after the auction if he was happy with the purchase, the man laughed and replied: “Not happy! It’s too expensive!” He declined to give his name.

Masked Men

Zeng Fanzhi’s 1994 “Mask Series No. 5,” showing masked men with arms around each other’s shoulders, went for HK$16.9 million, against a high estimate of HK$15 million. Cai Guo-Qiang’s screen “Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky: People” fetched HK$11.86 million against a top estimate of HK$9 million.

Of the day’s 485 lots, 372, or 77 percent, found buyers.

The session on modern and contemporary Southeast Asian paintings was dominated by Indonesian works. Indonesian buyers pushed up prices at Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale in April. Since then, the Jakarta Composite Index has risen another 25 percent, boosting wealth of the nation’s collectors.

The top lot among the modern offerings was S. Sudjojono’s 1956 work “A New Dawn,” which sold to a telephone bidder for HK$10.7 million, more than four times the HK$2.5 million high estimate. Leading the contemporary lots was Nyoman Masriadi’s “Sok Ngirit (Pretending to be Prudent),” depicting a line of people outside a telephone booth, which sold for HK$5.06 million, more than double its upper estimate of HK$2.2 million.

Philippine artist Ronald Ventura’s “Natural-Lies” attracted more than 30 bids to set an artist record HK$2.5 million, nine times its high estimate.

Week’s Sales

This week’s sales by New York-based Sotheby’s at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre include wines; Modern and Contemporary Asian Art; traditional Chinese paintings and ceramics; antiques; jewelry and watches.

At the Grand Hyatt hotel next door, rival Seoul Auction held a HK$78.5 million sale of Western and Asian modern and contemporary art, led by Marc Chagall’s “Bestiare et Musique,” which fetched HK$32.2 million.

Sotheby’s auctions continue today with sales of fine Chinese paintings by masters such as Wu Guanzhong and Fu Baoshi, whose works each have high estimates of HK$7 million.

While Sotheby’s official top estimate for the weeklong 3,200-lot Hong Kong auction is HK$1.6 billion ($210 million), Kevin Ching, chief executive officer for Asia, said before the start that he expected the total would meet or exceed the auction house’s Hong Kong record of HK$2 billion, set in April.