Art Market

$35 Million de Kooning Sells at Art Basel in Hong Kong on Opening Day

Nate Freeman
Mar 27, 2018 5:21PM

Installation view of Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XII (1975) in Lévy Gorvy’s booth at Art Basel in Hong Kong, 2018. Courtesy of Art Basel.

Art Basel in Hong Kong opened Tuesday afternoon to swarms of VIPs and collectors, and while there were plenty of distractions, the fair’s talk was dominated by chatter about Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XII (1975), a masterpiece from the collection of Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen that sold by the Lévy Gorvy gallery in the fair’s first hour for $35 million.

“We all said that Asia has arrived, and it has,” said Adeline Ooi, director Asia for Art Basel, calling the sale “a testament to the strength of the Asian market.”

Works in that price range are rare at fairs. It’s rarer still that one would sell so quickly, although Dominique Lévy told artnet News the sale had been in discussion for some time. Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel, said he recalled that Skarstedt sold a large work by Andy Warhol for more than $30 million at Art Basel in Basel in 2014, and during that fair’s 2012 iteration, Pace Gallery sold a Gerhard Richter for more than $20 million. But Art Basel in Basel is the world’s preeminent art fair, and has been nearly since its inception in 1970. Art Basel in Hong Kong is six years old, but—as is the case with so much in Asia—it is catching up fast.  

“Number one, it shows the trust in this collector to give it to us, and number two, it shows the trust to bring it to Hong Kong with his name attached to it,” Lévy Gorvy director Brett Gorvy said ten minutes after the sale was confirmed, just an hour into the fair. “That in a way is perfect confirmation of why this art fair works.”

Installation view of Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XII (1975) in Lévy Gorvy’s booth at Art Basel in Hong Kong, 2018. Courtesy of Art Basel.


He was standing in his booth as iPhone cameras snapped around him, with visitors taking pictures of the masterpiece. The work has quite the provenance: Allen had acquired it from the collector and businessman Stephen Swid in 2001, according to a press release provided by the gallery; and Swid had bought it at Sotheby’s in May 1987, where it had been consigned by the fashion heir Aldo Gucci.

The provenance was one of the reasons the gallery thought it would appeal to collectors at this particular fair, which in turn convinced Allen to let them take it to China. Chinese collectors were interested in owning a work that was for a long time an important part of the collection of the co-founder of Microsoft, Gorvy said. The other reason, Gorvy said, was the track record of Asian collectors who had been buying de Kooning at auction.

“Dominique [Lévy, his co-director] and I said to each other, ‘Look, what is the best way of selling this work?’ One thing with Mr. Allen, he wants an efficient sale,” said Gorvy.

“We have great belief in this marketplace—with Christie’s, I worked with Asia for a long time,” said Gorvy, who until the end of 2016 was the chairman and international head of of the postwar and contemporary department at Christie’s. He called the sale a testament to “the caliber of the collecting” in Asia, suggesting, perhaps inadvertently, the region from which the buyer hailed, although he steadfastly declined to provide any details on the buyer.  

Rashid Johnson
Falling Man, 2016
Hauser & Wirth
Paul McCarthy
And Andy, 2017
Hauser & Wirth

Other dealers confirmed that they brought more muscular offerings of work by Western artists than in years past, as the Asian collector base has developed a passion for certain artists in a short amount of time.

“The shift for this entire community, to become confident about Western art, it took two years,” said Marc Glimcher, president of Pace Gallery. “It’s amazing. Three years ago, four years ago, it was Asian contemporary art only.”

Glimcher explained that, in years past, he would bring mostly work by Asian artists to the fair, and that galleries who didn’t went home disappointed.

“We were successful here, but no one else was successful. People would come then and go boo hoo, boo hoo.”

Such days are evidently over. Glimcher said he had sold half the booth already, including Yoshitomo Nara’s In the White Room (2003) for $750,000 as well as two works by New York-based artist Loie Hollowell for $30,000 each.

A few booths away, Hauser & Wirth had been selling paintings by Philip Guston in the low millions range, as well as a black walnut Paul McCarthy sculpture for $575,000 to an Asian foundation, and a Rashid Johnson work for $215,000 to a Hong Kong collector. It continued the gallery’s hot streak when it came to placing work with Asian collectors this week: The show of new work by Mark Bradford that inaugurated the gallery in the H Queen’s building has completely sold out; all but one of the nearly a dozen works went to Asian collections and museums, including the Long Museum in Shanghai. The canvases ranged from between $2.5 million and $5 million, a gallery spokesperson said.

“We take this market very seriously, more seriously than ever,” gallery partner Marc Payot said. “Now there’s a critical amount of serious collectors and institutions, and that’s why we bring what we bring”— major Western artists that collectors here either know already, or with who they might forge a connection.

Of course, some artists require little calculation and strategic planning. Those two market stalwarts, Warhol and Pablo Picasso, beloved around the globe, made appearances at Hong Kong as well. One Picasso was Tête de Femme (1971) at the booth of Van de Weghe Fine Art, on offer for $18 million. As for Warhol, Skarstedt had Little Electric Chair from 1964-1965 and Gagosian had a wonderful Campbell’s soup can painting. Neither gallery commented on prices or on whether they had sold.

Jeff Koons
Bluebird Planter, 2010-2016
David Zwirner

Any number of people could have acquired them—the fair was attended by collectors such as Uli Sigg, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, and Adrian Cheng, as well as museum directors such as LACMA’s Michael Govan, the Guggenheim’s Richard Armstrong, Philip Tinari of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art and the Serpentine’s Hans Ulrich Obrist and Yana Peel. But the main subset of fairgoing celebrities were the scads of artists hanging around: among those spotted were Paul McCarthy, Antony Gormley, KAWS, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Takashi Murakami.

“I’ve never seen this many artists at a fair,” said Lisson international director Alex Logsdail, who sold paintings in the range of $80,000 to $150,000 by Stanley Whitney in the presence of Stanley Whitney himself, who was hanging in the booth for much of the day.

The biggest artist-is-present moment happened around 4:00 p.m. at the David Zwirner booth, where dealers reported a strong day of sales, including a work by Neo Rauch that sold for $1 million, and a lot of interest in the main attraction: a suite of works, on sale for between $2.5 and $8.5 million, by the artist Jeff Koons.

“We like to feature artists at art fairs, and with Jeff, well, you don’t have to introduce Jeff Koons,” said Zwirner, standing next to Koons’s enormous stainless steel sculpture Bluebird Planter (2010-2016). “However, as we are getting more serious in Asia opening our gallery, it’s an honor to have one of the greatest living American artists at the fair.”

And then Koons himself walked up to the booth, grinning with the aura of a rock star, and trailed by a line of selfie-seekers and crowds of people craning their arms to take pictures of him in front of the work. He was wearing an exhibitor’s badge around his neck that said “JEFF KOONS” under his picture, in case no one recognized him. And at one point, he did his signature arm-swoop motion in front of Bluebird Planter, and a wave of iPhones were thrust into the air to get the perfect Instagram shot.

“[Hong Kong] is a city where so many people come together from different parts of Asia,” Koons said, adding he was enjoying partaking in “the enthusiasm, the love of art, the belief in sharing its possibilities with people.”

Koons admitted that he’s not a regular guest at art fairs, where he often has work but doesn’t need to be present for it to sell. And yet, he’s enjoyed the energy of being here, and seeing a newly ascendant collector base so enthusiastic about art that someone, regardless of whether or not they are an Asian collector, could make the decision to spend $35 million on a single picture at an art fair in China.

“It’s so alive here that it reminds me of my youth, when I just got involved with the art world and could feel the passion from all my friends in the community,” Koons said. “You feel that here.”

Nate Freeman