With protests raging just outside of the auction house, a monumental painting titled Knife Behind Back (2000) by the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara sold at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong on Sunday for HK$195,696,000, or US$24.9 million, eclipsing the artist’s previous auction record of $4.4 million set at Christie’s in May of this year. Measuring more than seven feet by six feet, Knife Behind Back was the largest work by Nara ever sold at auction. The lot, which arrived at the auction block with an on-request pre-sale estimate of more than HK$50 million ($6.4 million), was eventually won after a 10-minute battle between 6 phone bidders.
The painting was executed in a pivotal year for the artist—he had been living in Germany since 1988, and 2000 was the year he returned to Japan. It’s also an early work in what is now considered to be the painter’s signature style. The consigner purchased it from Nara’s longtime gallery Blum & Poe.
Nara’s painting was the biggest lot what was a successful sale for Sotheby’s. The 34-lot evening sale of contemporary art brought in a total of HK$538 million (US$68.6 million), far greater than its pre-sale high estimate of HK$408m (US$52 million). An auction record was also set for Chinese painter Liu Ye, whose work Smoke (2001–02) sold for HK$52 million (US$6.6 million), surpassing his previous high mark of $5.5 million, which was also set at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2013.