Phillips’s Inaugural Hong Kong Sale Out to Defy Downward Market Trend by Mixing Art and Design

  • Henry Highley at the 2016 Spring 20th Century  & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, New York. Courtesy of Phillips and Jean Bourbon. 

    Henry Highley at the 2016 Spring 20th Century  & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, New York. Courtesy of Phillips and Jean Bourbon. 

With Shanghai art week now complete, the art world in Asia has turned its attention to a second round of autumn art auctions in Hong Kong. Following a slump in October’s sales results, questions loom as to how the upcoming sales will fare.

Christie’s will once again be hosting its weeklong autumn auction series at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, beginning November 25th. This year, however, they’re joined by Phillips. The 220-year-old auction house will stage its inaugural 20th-century and contemporary art and design sale in Asia on November 27th at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong.

Phillips first entered the Hong Kong market last year. At the time, the market was still thriving, and the house made its Asia debut with a successful watch sale totaling HK$118 million ($15 million). The sale set an auction record in Asia for a Patek Philippe wristwatch, with a Reference 3450 selling for HK$12 million ($1.6 million). Phillips chairman and CEO Edward Dolman said last year that the house was spurred to establish long-term plans in Hong Kong due to strong potential in the Asian art and collectibles market. Like many in both the primary and secondary markets, Dolman is eyeing the rise of a new generation of affluent art collectors in the region.

But sales soon turned out to be heading in an opposite direction. As in the rest of the world, the art market in Hong Kong has cooled over the past year. Results of Sotheby’s recent modern and contemporary Asian art auctions showed a 15 percent decline from the previous year. In fall 2015, the set of sales made HK$819.2 million ($105 million), compared to HK$698 million ($89.5 million) this October.

Some may question Phillips’s choice to stage their inaugural sale of modern and contemporary art in Hong Kong in the current climate. But Jonathan Crockett, Phillips’s deputy chairman of Asia and head of 20th-century and contemporary art in Asia, argued that now is precisely the right time.

“There’s no better time to have an auction than when the market is at a position of where it is now,” Crockett told Artsy. “The market is a lot slower right now than it was two or three years ago, but...we are here for the long term. Although the market is slowing down, it will pick up again.”

Phillips has chosen to feature a combination of Asian and Western art in the sale as well as a bold mix of art and design. Crockett said about two-thirds of the 55 lots on offer are art, and one-third is design. The formula of mixing Western art with Asian art has proved fruitful in Hong Kong. The Sotheby’s October sale #TTTOP, guest-curated by K-pop superstar T.O.P, totaled HK$136 million ($17.4 million), well above its presale estimate of HK$90 million ($11.5 million).

Phillips’s November 27th sale is expected to fetch in excess of HK$100 million ($13 million). Despite the subdued secondary market climate in Hong Kong at the moment, it wouldn’t surprise if the sale were to outstrip expectations. As has been the recent trend across sales globally, Crockett said that Phillips has kept estimates purposefully low in order to attract bidding activity.

Among the highlights of the Phillips sale is Roy Lichtenstein’s 1996 painting, Landscape With Grass, estimated to sell for HK$25 million–HK$35 million ($3.2 million–$4.5 million). The nearly three-meter-tall painting is from Lichtenstein’s series “Landscapes in the Chinese Style.” Fittingly for this sale, it bridges Eastern motifs with Lichtenstein’s style, well canonized in Western art history. It was exhibited at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1998.

Also headlining the sale is Gerhard Richter’s 1992 painting Abstraktes Bild 776-1, with a presale estimate of HK$18 million–HK$25 million ($2.3 million–$3.2 million). Crockett expects Yoshimoto Nara’s Daydreamer (2003) to set a new auction record for a work on paper by the artist. It is the largest work of its kind by Nara to come up for auction and is expected to fetch HK$5 million–HK$7 million ($641,000–$897,000).

Among the sale’s design highlights are a “Chieftain” armchair by Danish modernist Finn Juhl circa 1950, with a HK$1.5 million–HK$2 million ($192,000–$256,000) presale estimate, as well as a Wendell Castle “Ghost Rider” rocking chair, with a presale estimate of HK$1 million–HK$1.5 million ($128,000–$192,000).

“There is a strong Asian interest in collecting design. We see Asian collectors are buying at our design auctions in London and New York, so there is already an established demand for design in the region,” Crockett said.

With Hong Kong’s M+ museum unveiling its design collection for the first time at the exhibition “Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection” on November 30th at M+ Pavilion, and the development of Design Society in Shekou, China, Crockett expected that collecting design in the region will only grow in the long run. “The more exposure people get, the bigger the market becomes,” he said.


—Vivienne Chow